red poster cropped

The “Red Poster” of the Vichy Regime (1944) | kitchener.lord / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED

On February 21, 2024, the remains of Missak Manouchian and his widow, Melinée, herself a relatively marginal member of the Resistance and best known as the recipient of her husband’s moving final letter, were granted France’s highest honor: transfer to the Pantheon, the magnificent final resting place of Rousseau, Voltaire, Zola, and others to whom the “fatherland is grateful.” 

It was 80 years to the day since Manouchian and 21 other members of the French Communist Resistance organization Francs-Tireurs et Partisans-Main d’oeuvre Immigré (FTP-MOI) were executed by a 40-member German firing squad.

Historians, organizations of veterans of the Resistance, and, most recently, a secularist group have been calling for the transfer of Manouchian’s remains to the Pantheon for over a decade. Still, it was striking that a center-right president like Emmanuel Macron, who has recently hardened his position on immigrants and immigration, would grant such a high honor to two immigrant Communists. 

The choice of who will receive this honor is based on merit, to be sure, but it is also political. Who gets selected and when that selection is made always speaks volumes about the state of France—or the needs and goals of its political class. What, then, is the significance of the panthéonisation of Missak Manouchian, survivor of the Armenian genocide, poet, Communist, and a stateless resident of France, a country that twice denied his request for citizenship? How is it that in a France that marginalized and even turned foreigners over to the Nazis, that still fails to integrate its immigrant communities, and in which it is widely felt that the anti-immigrant Rassemblement National will win the next election, the president has granted entry to its most sacred place to someone so, dare we say, un-French?

Almost all of the FTP-MOI killed by the Nazis were either foreign-born or the children of immigrants and more than half of them were Jews. The Resistance fighters, known to history as the Manouchian Group, after their commander, Missak Manouchian, had been judged at what amounted to a show trial, in which their status as immigrants was stressed. After their execution, in a further attempt to paint the Resistance as a foreign and Jewish undertaking, the Germans plastered posters in a shocking red on walls in cities around France. “Liberators?” the poster, asked. “Liberation by the army of crime, ” it answered. The poster included images of men killed by the Resistance, of a derailed train, of weapons, and photos of ten of the executed, with their un-French names—Wajsbrot, Boczov, Rayman, Elek—and their nationalities—Hungarian Jew, Spanish Red, Polish Jew—stressed. The poster came to be known as L’Affiche Rouge: the red poster.

Manouchian’s communism and the fact that his widow, when the war ended, was part of the exodus of French-Armenian Communists who moved to Soviet Armenia, were not hindrances to pantheonization at this late date. Macron didn’t have to fear that boosting a Communist’s credentials would put wind in the Communist Party’s (PCF) sails: the PCF at war’s end was the largest party in France, one that called itself “the Party of the executed” in honor of the tens of thousands of militants executed by the Germans. The Party now receives slightly more than two percent of the vote in presidential elections. Openly discussing the role of Communists during the war poses no threat to Macron. 

Interestingly, this is the second time Macron has honored a Communist. Early in his first term he officially admitted that during Algeria’s War for Independence, it was the French military that killed under torture an Algerian Communist, Maurice Audin—a responsibility denied by the government for over 60 years. Macron granted Audin a posthumous PhD, which he had been working on at the time of his disappearance in 1957, and renamed a square across from the College de France after him. 

But there’s more to the Communist angle. For the past 40 years controversy has raged around the arrest of the Manouchian Group. The brouhaha was set off by the 1985 film Terrorists in Retirement, in which Melinée Manouchian and the brother of another group member claimed that the Communist Party, knowing that the French police were trailing them, abandoned the FTP-MOI fighters to their fate in Paris instead of dispersing them in the countryside. The reason for this abandonment, according to those historians who adhere to this thesis, was that the PCF was preparing for the post-war period and they didn’t want their party and its heroism represented by a gaggle of foreigners. Better dead martyrs than living men and women who didn’t fit the image of France they wanted to project. 

Given this controversy, Missak Manouchian can be seen as the dream Communist for someone like Macron, who has been battling the Left throughout his presidency. The Manouchian story makes the Communist Party look callous and even anti-immigrant, if not anti-Semitic. There could be no doubt that the pantheonization would revive the film condemning the PCF, and this is in fact what happened. It was shown several times on French TV in the runup to the ceremony, and I attended a screening at the Musée d’art et d’histoire de Judaïsme where the subject was debated at length. Macron in effect elevated the image of the historic Left while lowering it in the present.

As for the matter of immigration, Macron has enacted several anti-immigrant measures recently, attempting to fend off the ever-rising Rassemblement National of Marine Le Pen. At the same time, he has been proclaiming that Le Pen’s party is outside the republican camp and has to be rejected. The transfer to the Pantheon of the immigrant Manouchian was accompanied by the promise—one that was fulfilled—that the names of all of the mainly foreign fighters executed would appear on the wall outside the crypt containing the Manouchians. Belying his actions over the seven years of his presidency, Macron was able to present himself as a friend of immigrants, who he now proclaims an essential element of the French nation. 

In keeping with this, when word began spreading that Marine Le Pen would be present at the ceremony, Macron called for her to abstain from attending. Le Pen, too, used the safely dead foreigners of the Manouchian Group to buff her image. She tweeted that “in paying homage to Missak Manouchian it is also to the entire Resistance that we pay homage. We pay homage to these men and women who rose up and who united around a very grand and very beautiful idea, the nation and its liberty.” Le Pen thus recast an honor paid to a foreign Communist as another step in the normalization of the Rassemblement National. For Macron, recognizing the heroism of past immigrants served as cover for his own anti-immigrant present. 

The Pantheon is a product of the French Revolution and was a key element in the Revolution’s emphasis on presenting great men—and they were always men—as moral examples. Even the choice of its home participated in the morals it was founded to inculcate. Originally constructed as a church in 1757, sitting atop Mount Sainte-Geneviève in the heart of the Latin Quarter, the Pantheon occupies the highest point on the Left Bank. Its founders’ intent was that all eyes would be drawn to it and the example set by the people within. Early inductees, chosen by the National Assembly, included Rousseau and Voltaire. 

Politics were immediately a part of its nature. After his assassination, Jean-Paul Marat, the great voice of the Left of the Revolution, was interred there. When political winds blew against the Left, he was de-pantheonized, and his remains buried in an unmarked grave.

Pantheonization was not taken very seriously by Napoleon or the Bourbon kings of the Restoration, but the return of the Republic in 1870 saw the return of the Pantheon to its politicized beginnings. As had been the case during the Revolution, the legislature determined who would receive the honor until 1958 and the founding of the Fifth Republic, when the choice fell to the president. The honorees are clear expressions of the dominant political force of the moment, and for this reason the selections made were not always greeted positively. When Emile Zola was transferred to the Pantheon in 1908, the Far Right, which had not forgiven him for his role in the Dreyfus Affair, was enraged. Captain Dreyfus attended the ceremony, at which a member of the royalist Action Française attempted to assassinate him. On the other hand, Victor Hugo is perhaps the only resident who was not transferred to the Pantheon but whose sole resting place was there. The popular will was directly expressed by the million people who participated in his funeral in 1885 and ensured that his remains were taken directly to the Pantheon. 

If some of those pantheonized are benefactors of humanity whose place raises no question, like Braille and the Curies, as we approach the current moment the conjunctural benefits to the head of state for his choices becomes more obvious. There are only a couple of Black people in the Pantheon, and their presence is an expression of the political. In 1949, as the wave of decolonization swept the postwar world, France chose to honor Félix Eboué, a colonial admittatur and supporter of the Free French. Eboué, whatever his virtues, also checked off several boxes that made his choice politically shrewd. He was proof of the validity of the French mission civilisatrice.

French resistance to the German occupiers and Vichy were the dominant myth that propped up Gaullism, so it was no surprise that in 1964 de Gaulle chose to have Jean Moulin, his wartime representative in France, who was tortured and killed by Klaus Barbie, transferred to the Pantheon. The speech honoring Moulin was delivered by the minister of culture, André Malraux. 

The death of the myth of la France résistante, punctured for good by Marcel Ophuls’s 1969 film The Sorrow and the Pity, has not diminished the importance of the Resistance among those pantheonized. When discontent was voiced about the lack of women in the Pantheon (there are only seven as we speak), two female Resistance members, Germaine Tillon and Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz were granted the honor in 2014. Josephine Baker, the Saint Louis-born star of the French stage and screen was admitted in 2021, not for her stage role dressed in a skirt made out of bananas, but for her participation in Resistance activities. The crypt in which her remains were placed are now shared with Missak and Melinée Manouchian.

The ceremony itself was a moving one, and at no point was there any attempt to hide or understate the Communist affiliation of those being honored. Macron spoke movingly of this, and of all that France owed both to these particular immigrants and immigrants in general. Songs about the partisans were sung and Armenian folk tunes played. Letters written by Manouchian to his wife were read by some of France’s greatest actors. And yet, part of the evening was cause for unease.

When the names of the 23 martyrs were read, each name was followed by a group intoning the words “Mort pour la France?” Died for France. 

But when the caskets were carried from the end of the plaza leading to the Pantheon, they were borne by uniformed members of the Foreign Legion, those perfect representatives of French imperialism. As I watched them in their white kepis carrying the remains of a great and heroic fighter against oppression, I was stunned. Is this the France that he and his comrades died for? Didn’t this moment betray everything that every speaker had asserted he and his comrades fought for?