France faces an existential crisis over plan to dig up Albert Camus

“Reading L’Étranger, by Albert Camus, during my 16th summer changed my life. It awakened in me a respect for and an appreciation of great literature.”

Sarkozy means to re-bury writer in Pantheon to capitalize on left-wing cachet, critics say

Susan Sachs

Paris — Special to Globe and Mail Update Published on Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2009

It is an existential question worthy of, well, Albert Camus. That is, do the dead the make waves?

The answer is yes, at least in France, where a raging debate has broken out over whether to disinter Mr. Camus’s remains from a village graveyard in Provence and transfer them to a crypt in the majestic Pantheon in Paris.

“ I think a lot of people realize that Albert Camus doesn’t need Sarkozy. But it could be in Sarkozy’s interest to use Camus. ”— Biographer Olivier Todd

 

The idea came from President Nicolas Sarkozy, who suggested last week that the Nobel Prize-winning writer belongs among France’s other long-departed heroes and literary legends in the domed mausoleum.

Since January will be the 50th anniversary of Mr. Camus’s death, he said, inducting him into the most prestigious French hall of fame “would be an extraordinary symbol.”

Mr. Sarkozy did not elaborate on what it would symbolize, exactly. But his critics were quick to suspect his motives in championing an author who was an intellectual force in the postwar French left.

Jean Camus, the writer’s son, was said by friends to object on the grounds that the President may want to score political points by presiding over a solemn reburial ceremony of a cultural icon at the Pantheon.

“I think a lot of people realize that Albert Camus doesn’t need Sarkozy,” said Olivier Todd, one of the writer’s many biographers. “But it could be in Sarkozy’s interest to use Camus.”

Some commentators have accused Mr. Sarkozy of trying to co-opt high-profile leftists, a dead one in this case, to burnish his credentials as a bipartisan statesman.

Others say he is trying to use Mr. Camus, who was born into a family of French settlers in pre-independence Algeria, as a poster boy for his pet project to create a French-sponsored union of Mediterranean countries.

Mr. Sarkozy, whose every action draws a reflexive attack from outside his right-wing party, said he would consult with the Camus family before going further. But his seemingly off-the-cuff proposal appeared to throw the writer’s survivors off balance.

“I don’t know what I think,” said Catherine Camus, his daughter, in a radio interview. “I think about all those who have the same background as my father, meaning very poor, and about my grandmother who was a cleaning lady. Maybe it would be a sign of respect to her as well.”

Mr. Camus, the author of such well-known books as The Plague and The Stranger, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957 for a body of work that the Nobel committee characterized as an “austere search for moral order.”

He died in a car crash in 1960, at the age of 46, and was buried under a cypress tree in Lourmarin, in southern France, where he settled in the last years of his life because the sunshine and the setting reminded him of his beloved Algeria.

For some people, that would be reason enough to leave Mr. Camus where he lies. “He didn’t like Paris and he would be a stranger there, a foreigner in this Republican mausoleum, with its pediments, columns and cupolas, its classical frescoes and chilly marble,” wrote Gérard Courtoisin an editorial in the newspaper Le Monde. The Pantheon was originally built as a church in the 18th century but was expropriated during the French Revolution and converted into a VIP mausoleum. Voltaire is buried there, as are Victor Hugo, Émile Zola and Louis Pasteur.

Most were moved there years after their deaths, when their status as luminaries of French culture and politics was assured. Over the years, a number of people honoured with a place in its vaults have been disinterred when later generations demoted them from hero status.

Anniversaries tend to inspire the French to think of new entrants and politics has never been far from the decision-making process.

The remains of the elder Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers, were interred there on the 200th anniversary of his birth in 2002, despite the protests of the village where he had been buried for 132 years.

A number of French intellectuals lobbied to have Alfred Dreyfus, the army captain at the centre of an infamous 19th-century anti-Semitic trial, interred in the Pantheon in 2006, 100 years after his acquittal. Their plea was ultimately turned down, as was a Socialist attempt to have the left-wing Martiniquan writer Aimé Cesar buried in the Pantheon after his death in 2008.

When the Socialist François Mitterrand was president, he had the remains of seven luminaries placed in the Pantheon. His successor, Jacques Chirac, managed to have two Pantheon ceremonies.

Mr. Camus, according to people who knew him and have weighed in on the question, was distrustful of politicians and never wanted to be labelled, even as an existentialist. Governments, he once wrote, have no conscience. And martyrs, he also wrote, “have to choose between being forgotten, mocked or used. As for being understood – never.”

Special to The Globe and Mail

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