Every time I ride past the Panthéon in Paris I am reminded of a man I met in Berkeley, California when I was living there in 1967.
I was working at that time as News Director of a non-commercial radio station. In the mornings I always walked to work, and one day when I arrived some colleagues came running out to meet me and asked if I could speak French.
“A little,” I said, and they ushered me into studio A. There at the big table was one of our regular weekly political commentators, Professor Marshall Windmiller, and sitting across from Marshall was a man I recognized immediately as François Mitterrand.
At this time Mitterrand was not yet the President of France because he had lost to Charles de Gaulle in a run-off election two years before.
Mitterrand could understand English quite well, but he was unwilling to speak it on the radio because he thought it would sound undignified if he made mistakes and had to search for words. So the plan was that Marshall would ask the questions in English, Mitterrand would answer in French and I would translate his answers into English. I agreed to this on the condition that Mitterrand would correct me if I got anything wrong, which in fact he did several times in a very polite and friendly manner.
After recording the interview we sat around and chatted for another half hour, and I was duly impressed by this cultivated and erudite French socialist.
The interview lasted 48 minutes. It was recorded in the morning and broadcast the same evening. I didn’t listen to the broadcast and in fact have never listened to the recording, though it evidently still exists in the Pacifica Archives. (Hard to find because they misspelled Mitterrand’s name.)
A few days after the broadcast I received a post card from someone at the French department of Stanford University, praising my translation and saying I had clearly exposed the shallowness of Mitterrand’s remarks — which was not at all my intention! Perhaps my off-the-cuff translation was even worse than I had thought.
Mitterrand ran for president again in 1974 and was defeated by a very narrow margin. But on his third try in 1981 he was finally elected and became the first socialist President of France under the Fifth Republic.
He was inaugurated as President on May 21, 1981. I wasn’t in Paris on that day, but I watched the inauguration on television. After all the usual ceremonies (reception at Elysée Palace, wreath-laying at the Arc de Triomphe, speeches at Paris City Hall, etc.), Mitterrand was driven up Boulevard Saint Michel in the Latin Quarter. At Rue Soufflot he got out of his car and walked the three blocks up to the Panthéon, followed by thousands of supporters. At the Panthéon an orchestra and chorus under the direction of Daniel Barenboim performed parts of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, including Schiller’s Ode to Joy (sung in French, I believe).
Finally Mitterrand walked into the Panthéon “alone” — there were obviously dozens of cameramen and technicians stationed throughout the building, but Mitterrand was the only person visible. He strode solemnly through the building and then down into the crypt, stopping to bow at the grave of the Resistance leader Jean Moulin (1899-1943) and then laying red roses on the graves of Jean Jaurès (1859-1914) and Victor Schoelcher (1804-1893).
I must admit that despite my admiration for Mitterrand I found his televised walk through the Panthéon a bit corny, but for the French it was evidently the right mixture of piety and patriotism.
The Panthéon was first conceived as a church, but during the French Revolution it was re-purposed as a burial place for Great Men (much later also a few Great Women) who had contributed to the Glory of France.
The first person to have the honor of being buried in the Panthéon (there is a French verb for that, panthéoniser) was a controversial aristocrat-turned-revolutionary, the Count of Mirabeau, who died in 1791. But he was also the first person whose body was removed, in 1794, because of suspicion that he had been in cahoots with the king all along.
In the early 20th century Mirabeau returned to the Panthéon in the form of this statue by Jean-Antonin Injalbert (1845-1933). The statue shows Mirabeau as a fiery orator, and can be seen if you walk all the way around to the back on the ground floor.
In pre-revolutionary times Mirabeau was known as the author of pornographic novels, which he wrote to pass the time while he was a prisoner in Vincennes castle. His fellow prisoner the Marquis de Sade also wrote pornographic novels, but reportedly the two men couldn’t stand each other.
One of the weirdest things in the Panthéon is this fresco of Saint Denis. He has just been beheaded (in the year 250 A.D.) and his head has started to roll down the stairs, so he is bending over to pick it up. There is a halo around the fallen head, and a sparkling light above his neck where the head used to be. The man in the blue loincloth is presumably the executioner, and the white-bearded man wearing a white bedsheet seems to be some sort of pagan priest or official who has ordered the execution. The two headless bodies on the left and right sides of the picture are Denis’s colleagues Rusticus and Eleutherius, who were beheaded with him. But they did not survive the execution, so they are just lying dead on the stairs. One of their heads does have a thin halo around it, however, by the executioners left foot in the lower right-hand corner of the picture. After his execution Saint Denis picked up his head and walked two leagues straight north (6 km we would say today) to the spot where the Basilica of Saint Denis is now located, in the town of the same name. On his walk he preached, or his head preached, a sermon on the topic of redemption.
If for some reason you would like to see this fresco in the Panthéon, you should know that it is just inside the building at the entrance, on the wall above the ticket booth and the security table.
My photos in this post are from 2011 and 2016. The text was last revised in 2017.