Reburying Albert Camus: A Political Ploy by Sarkozy?

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President Sarkozy plans to rebury French writer Albert Camus in the Panthéon

Given the Panthéon's function as the final repose for France's greatest heroes, it's perhaps not surprising that efforts are now afoot to relocate the ashes of writer and philosopher Albert Camus to a site beneath the 18th century Paris building's cupola. But rather than earning plaudits from intellectuals and ordinary French people alike, the move to honor the man some call France's most influential postwar thinker is sparking controversy. Some pundits and historians say that Camus' legacy is being exploited for political gain, while others argue that glorification of the philosopher by the French government would make a mockery of Camus' deeply individualist convictions.

President Nicolas Sarkozy said last week that he wanted to add Camus to the giants of French history who are buried at the Panthéon — figures like Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola and Louis Pasteur — as a way of revering an author whose defense of the downtrodden and veneration of the individual over the oppressive forces of society earned him fame and respect around the globe. But the announcement outraged Camus' son, Jean, who saw a motivation of a different sort — an attempt by Sarkozy to "requisition" the legacy of a ferociously independent thinker who has long been a hero of the intellectual left.

He isn't the only one against making the writer of The Stranger and The Rebel a quasi saint of the French state. Several leading French intellectuals and Camus experts have denounced what they claim is Sarkozy's effort to associate himself with a politically engaged writer who would doubtless oppose his leadership were he alive today. "I don't think Albert Camus has any need of Sarkozy, I think Sarkozy has greater need of some intellectual sparkle," Camus biographer Olivier Todd told France Inter radio on Saturday. "This is a gimmick — it's part of his technique of hijacking the intellectual milieu. It flies absolutely in the face of everything that Camus stood for."

Worse still, this isn't the first time Sarkozy has been accused of trying to claim a leftist hero as a representative of his own values. Two years ago, for example, he started an annual ritual that involves schoolchildren reading a patriotic letter written by French communist resistance fighter Guy Môquet before he was executed by the Nazis in 1941. During his 2007 presidential campaign, he also repeatedly quoted the seminal French socialist leader (and Panthéon resident) Jean Jaurès in an attempt to infer that the legendary leftist would have backed the positions he was championing.

Detractors also claim that Sarkozy's true motivation for bringing leftist figures like Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner into his Cabinet is to make it easier for him to pursue hard-right objectives such as choking off immigration and passing harsher law-and-order statutes. Critics say that if Sarkozy's initiatives don't receive a reaction from the progressive members of his government, he uses that as proof that his policies are not as right wing as his political opponents claim. "Sarkozy cites Jean Jaurès here to better apply National Front [a far-right French party] ideas there, and his choice of Camus for the Panthéon is also clearly rooted in a purely political logic rather than an intellectual one," says François Cusset, a historian and philosophy expert who teaches American studies at the University of Paris-Nanterre.

However, despite Camus' early years as a communist and long dedication to fighting imperialism, his later rejection of totalitarianism of all kinds — and denunciation of Soviet oppression that ran him afoul of contemporaries like Jean-Paul Sartre — don't exactly make him a perfect icon of the left, says Cusset. "Though he was courageous in refusing to be shut away into any political or philosophical category, Camus never really said what camp he belonged to, meaning his legacy is open to lots of interpretation," Cusset says. "Camus was indeed one of the most famous figures and beloved writers in the postwar period, but Sarkozy's embrace of Camus seems to confirm the French motto that you need to be more consensual than brilliant to get into the Panthéon."

Will Camus make it there? Though Jean Camus has rejected Sarkozy's request to move the writer's ashes from the Luberon region, where he was buried following his death in a car crash in 1960, his twin sister Catherine, who has managed her father's estate, is divided on the issue. Catherine appears to be less politicized in her thinking and has said that her father's place in the Panthéon could "be a symbol for those for whom life is very hard" — a reference to Albert Camus' underprivileged youth in colonial Algeria.

For the foreseeable future, at least, Camus will continue to rest in Luberon, though probably not entirely in peace.