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After what has – for historians of France, anyway – felt like a long and drawn-out wait, white smoke has issued from the Elysée Palace. François Hollande has announced the next group of people to enter the hallowed crypts of the Panthéon.

Hollande has chosen a whopping four new entrants, all linked to the Résistance during the Second World War: Pierre Brossolette, Jean Zay, Germaine Tillion and Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz (niece of Charles de Gaulle).

Official image announcing selection of Tillion, Zay, de Gaulle-Anthonioz and Brossolette, via @Elysee

Official image announcing selection of Tillion, Zay, de Gaulle-Anthonioz and Brossolette, via @Elysee

Panthéonisation is the French republican equivalent of canonisation: a recognition of the chosen person as an embodiment of French republican values, as a role model and an inspiration to other citizens. Those buried there include Voltaire and Rousseau, interred there in the 1790s by revolutionaries keen to stress the lineage from Enlightenment thought through to the events of 1789, as well as a plethora of ‘great men’ from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Some of these, like various Napoleonic generals, are largely ignored by contemporary visitors. Others continue to attract considerable attention. A particularly popular spot is Caveau XXIV, the crypt that houses the remains of Victor Hugo, Emile Zola and Alexandre Dumas. It may seem fitting to ensure these literary greats lie side by side for all eternity, but one can’t help but wonder how they might have felt about it.

Caveau XXIV, final resting place of Victor Hugo, Emile Zola and Alexandre Dumas.

Caveau XXIV, final resting place of Victor Hugo, Emile Zola and Alexandre Dumas.

Hollande’s announcement today has, in one fell swoop, tripled the amount of women interred the Panthéon on their own merit. Up to this point only Marie Curie had received the honour; she will now be joined by Tillion and de Gaulle-Anthonioz.

Given this longstanding gender imbalance, it’s perhaps unsurprising that over the past year feminist campaigners and the general public alike urged Hollande to choose at least one woman to be honoured with Panthéonisation. A poll run on the website of the Centre des Monuments Nationaux, described by Guardian journalist Agnès Poirier as ‘a kind of X-Factor style exercise in national glory’, asked the public to nominate candidates for entry to the Panthéon. The French feminist group Osez le féminisme (Dare to be Feminist) offered a list of four: the eighteenth-century feminist Olympe de Gouges, author of the Declaration of the Rights of Women and Female Citizens; Louise Michel, anarchist and icon of the Paris Commune of 1871; the feminist writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir; and Germaine Tillion, an ethnographer, resistance fighter, concentration camp survivor and campaigner against the use of torture by French forces in Algeria. Of these four, as we now know, only Tillion made the cut.

Olympe de Gouges, thought to be one of the potential entrants to the Panthéon.

Olympe de Gouges, thought to be one of the potential entrants to the Panthéon.

The desire to address the Panthéon’s severe lack of female incumbents was also seen at a more official level. In October 2013 Philippe Bélaval, president of the Centre des Monuments nationaux (CMN), the organisation responsible for looking after the Panthéon, prepared a report for President Hollande in which he urged him to only Panthéonise women, in order to begin a process of repairing this imbalance. Bélaval’s report also advised the president to choose women who displayed ‘republican resilience’; whose republican convictions had been strengthened by their experience of ‘hardship’.

In following these recommendations, Hollande and his advisors had over two centuries’ worth of outstanding French women to choose from. However, the Bélaval report was also very clear about chronology, arguing that the women selected for Panthéonisation should be exclusively linked with ‘periods of hardship’ during the twentieth century, and not before.

This report was intended only to guide the president in his choice, and did not include specific suggestions as to suitable figures for Panthéonisation. However, Bélaval’s focus on twentieth-century women immediately appeared to exclude significant women of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries from consideration. If Hollande decided to follow this advice, then de Gouges and Louise Michel, whose names came up again and again in discussions on the topic in the French media over the course of 2013, were out of the running.

Today’s announcement shows that Hollande has clearly ignored Bélaval’s suggestion to exclusively Panthéonise women during his presidency – but he appears to have taken on board his advice regarding both the importance of working towards achieving a greater gender balance in the Panthéon, and his belief that the new entrants should be twentieth-century figures.

My point here is not to denigrate the two men and two women who will now enter the ‘temple of great men’ (and women?) that sits atop the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève. Brossolette, Zay, Tillion and de Gaulle-Anthonioz are all worthy of the honour. Seventy years after the liberation of Paris, perhaps it makes sense to focus on figures linked to the Second World War. Their contributions to the French Republic go far beyond their status as ‘résistants’. It is clear, however, that this is the primary motivating factor in their selection, as shown by Hollande’s deeply symbolic decision to announce the names at Mont Valérien, where many résistants, hostages and Free French fighters were executed during the Occupation.

More disquieting for me, though, is the fact that this decision appears to reflect a more general problem in official policies regarding memory and commemoration – both in France and elsewhere – where events and figures of the twentieth century are overwhelmingly prioritised. This was clearly in evidence in Philippe Bélaval’s report to Hollande, which stated that twentieth-century women should be chosen for Panthéonisation because ‘the memory is still fresh and the general public understand the issues.’ Bélaval reiterated this point in his suggestion that Hollande choose figures linked to the two World Wars and the Résistance because they constituted ‘relatively recent periods of hardship.’

This approach to memory and commemoration appears to reveal a belief that the general public are unable to relate to anything earlier than the First World War, and that official commemorative events and rituals should therefore reflect this. If we are to take this at face value, it suggests that the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are, in a way, done. People cannot ‘relate’ to them, or they do not have pre-existing knowledge, so it is pointless to try to improve public knowledge of these periods by including them in state-sponsored exercises in commemoration and memory. This emphasis on the public ‘relating’ to historic events is also in evidence in discussions around the centenary events for the First World War, where there appears to be a conflation of ‘living memory’ with commemoration and more long-term remembrance and understanding of the events. This approach can be seen in comments made in November 2013 in a Commons debate on the centenary, where the Conservative MP Andrew Murrison linked ‘disconnection’ from the war with the deaths of the last remaining veterans in 2009.

All this seems to set a worrying precedent, where what we remember officially is, at least in part, based on how far we are from the event in question. It is not, of course, possible to remember everything. But if our selection of who and what we commemorate is based on the general public’s ability to ‘relate’ to them, and if that is intrinsically linked to the events being in the relatively recent past, then what happens when we reach 2114 and the bicentenary of the First World War?

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