No Panthéon for Camus

French president Sarkozy's attempt to honour Albert Camus has backfired

Normally, honoring a writer as conventionally admired as the Nobel-prizewinning French author Albert Camus (1913 -1960) fifty years after his accidental death in a car crash should not be a controversial matter. But these are not normal times in France. The author of The Stranger, The Fall, and The Plague was proposed in mid-November by French President Nicolas Sarkozy for honorary reburial in the Panthéon, the vast monument in Paris' Latin Quarter which entombs many Gallic heroes, from Voltaire to Pasteur. In response, Jean Camus, 64, one of the late writer's twin children, told Le Monde newspaper that he feared Sarkozy was attempting an "appropriation" (récupération) of his father through a "misinterpretation" (contresens). In France, the concept of "droit moral" (moral rights) means that if Camus's son is opposed to the idea, the writer cannot be disinterred from his current resting place, in the cemetery of Lourmarin, a town in the Vaucluse department, in southern France, where he had a summer home.

Even preceding Jean Camus's reaction was one by the far-right-wing politician Jean-Marie Le Pen, who accused Sarkozy of trying to lure away supporters of his National Front party by honoring Camus, a white Frenchman born in Algeria, or as Le Pen described him to the AFP, a "Pied-Noir writer," referring to the colonists of Algeria who were obliged to leave at the end of the Algerian War in 1962. A more common reaction came from Jeanyves Guérin, a Sorbonne professor and editor of the scrupulously detailed "Albert Camus Dictionary" (Dictionnaire Albert Camus), published in November by Robert Laffont in Paris. According to Guérin, interviewed in Le Nouvel Observateur, "Sarkozy is the friend of Bush, Gaddafi, Putin, Berlusconi. His politics are the antithesis of the values and ideas defended by Camus." The reliably middlebrow Bernard Pivot, formerly host of the popular TV literary program Apostrophes, also objected, although less antagonistically, in the Journal du Dimanche: "Reinter Camus' remains in the Panthéon? For a Mediterranean who always celebrated the sun, it would be quite cold there. Everything in the writer's life and work suggests that he would not have appreciated this kind of honor and official display which has no rapport to literature..."

Camus was indeed highly suspicious of political power and panoply, believing it corrupted those who possess it, and his play Caligula alleges that "to govern means to pillage, as everyone knows." Having known poverty in his own youth, Camus defended the rights of the poor and downtrodden, and while considering himself a leftist, criticized the Soviet system of gulags in the 1950s, which can make him look prescient today, at least compared to blinkered Communists among French intellectuals like Sartre and Beauvoir. Unlike the free-market capitalism strenuously advocated by Sarkozy, Camus was a devout libertarian, some writers remind us. Yet does this really matter? Other observers point out that in a few decades, few if any will remember under which French presidency Camus was reburied in the Panthéon, with accompanying hoopla. The philosopher and radio personality Raphaël Enthoven asked in L'Express: "Why deprive Camus of a hero's burial, after having accorded Sartre a papal funeral? Why deprive Camus of what was given to Rousseau, Voltaire, Hugo and Zola?" The filmmaker Yann Moix concurred in the political journal La Règle du jeu, pointing out that since the Panthéon is the "Académie française for dead people," these days Camus is surely both "sufficiently academic and sufficiently dead to repose there." Moix adds, ironically assuring readers: "His works, great, lovely, and noble as they are, will not dynamite anything. Camus is not a dangerous author."

Yet he has turned out to be dangerous for Sarkozy, because even more than any putative political clash, Camus has reminded the French public of Sarkozy's own rapport with literature, which has been, in a word, disastrous. In other nations, politicians are not expected to be well-read or even functionally literate, but France is still an exception - or was until recently. During his campaign in 2006, Sarkozy notoriously dismissed the 17th century French novel La Princesse de Clèves by Madame de La Fayette, arguing that civil service entrance exams should not include questions about such painfully irrelevant subjects. A great crowd of unsuspected Madame de La Fayette fans arose, holding marathon public readings of La Princesse de Clèves and following the satiric "Sarkothon" campaign of the writer Jacques Drillon, who, mocking both the current government and TV charity telethons, wrote that since poor Nicholas has never read anything, French citizens should immediately mail him books.

As if in defiance, Sarkozy multiplied his aggressive comments about literature and those who spent what he saw as excessive time reading it. In 2007, Sarkozy told students in a speech: "You have the right to study classic literature, but the taxpayer is not obliged to pay for your studies in classic literature," thereby striking at the heart of academic subjects which are not immediately remunerative. A year later, at a press conference during a state visit to India, Sarkozy offended wide swathes of readers by claiming: "You can like [fascist French writer Louis-Ferdinand] Céline without being anti-Semitic, just as you can like [Marcel] Proust without being homosexual." Apart from the crude parallelism of anti-Semite/homosexual as two entities comparably offensive to Sarkozy, his reductive approach clearly typed him in the minds of the French as a book hater. Or, as Drillon explained in a September online chat, Sarkozy's critics "do not reproach him for [not being a great reader]. He can read or not read, that's up to him. We reproach his hatred for books, which is something different. We reproach him for despising books and readers."

Here is the crux of the problem, and the peculiar reason why Albert Camus will not, at least in the immediate future, be reburied in the Panthéon.

Benjamin Ivry is author of biographies of Rimbaud, Ravel, and Poulenc, and translator of books by Gide, Verne, and Balthus.