On Saturday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced on a state visit to Martinique that the “soul” of Aimé Césaire (26 June 1913 – 17 April 2008) will be placed in the Pantheon in Paris. Said soul will be represented by a plaque. The Panthéon is the final resting place for such French luminaries as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Hugo. Internment there requires a parliamentary act recognizing a national hero of the finest quality. The reason only Césaire’s “soul” will be there, rather than his body is rather complicated.
Aimé Césaire won a scholarship to Paris in the 1930s. There, he became friends with other black francophone intellectuals, such as Léopold Senghor of Senegal. Together, they formed developed the notion of “négritude” – a celebration of African culture and character. They turned the ugly word “nègre” into something positive. Césaire overcame his impoverished origins to become a poet, writer, and politician. He represented Martinique in the French National Assembly and as President of the Regional Council of Martinique. In 2006, he refused to meet Sarkozy, then head of the political party that had just successfully introduced a bill that required French schools to teach that the colonization of Africa by Europeans had been positive for the indigenous people. (The absurd law was later repealed.)
Césaire had left clear instructions that he wanted to be buried in the Martinique that he loved so much, knowing that there would be an effort to move him to the Panthéon. Since France could not co-opt his body, they must settle for representing his soul with a plaque. His courage and originality exemplify the spirit of today’s saying, “à cœur vaillant rien d’impossible,” (a cur veyen reN dampossEble) which means “nothing is impossible to a courageous heart.” I don’t think Césaire’s soul will be confined to a plaque, even in the Panthéon.
Update: On April 6, 2011, President Nicolas Sarkozy and other dignitaries were present for the unveiling of a fresco in the Panthéon in Césaire’s honor.