When Albert Camus died in a 1960 car accident in Villeblevin, France, at the age of 46, he was buried in the scenic Provençal village of Lourmarin, where the celebrated novelist had bought a house with the money from his 1957 Nobel Prize. He was drawn to the region for its resemblance to his native Algeria, and his grave lies peacefully in the shade of a cypress tree, beneath a beating sun and buzzing cicadas. It would be, under most circumstances, an uncontroversial spot for a literary hero to rest in peace.
Alas, not in France. Fifty years after his death, the author of The Stranger and The Rebel has been thrust to the center of a virulent and peculiarly French debate over politics and how best to honor the nation's cultural heroes—really, how best to honor its culture, period. In November, when President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed moving the writer's remains to the Pantheon, the grand Paris mausoleum dedicated to the country's greats, he opened a rift much deeper than Camus's grave. At issue is not the proposed—who everyone agrees deserves the Pantheon—but the proposer. Critics have accused Sarkozy of blatant opportunism, aligning himself with Camus to further his unpopular "national identity debate"—the nationwide discussion on what it means to be French, widely viewed as a ploy to win far-right votes. Led by National Identity Minister Eric Besson, who also serves as immigration minister, the discussion quickly took on racist, anti-Muslim overtones, something the leftist, humanist Camus would have deplored.
A master political strategist, Sarkozy has a reputation for appropriating auras for political gain. He routinely poaches personnel from rival camps, choosing the popular socialist Bernard Kouchner as foreign minister, for instance. So with the president's approval ratings tanking, selecting Camus, a hero of the Resistance, for new honors smacks of cynical politicking. "It's what we call tomb raiding," says Jeanyves Guérin, editor of the new Dictionnaire Albert Camus. "It's a public-relations coup. It's like, 'I've got Kouchner, I'll get Camus.' "
It is also seen as a self-serving scheme to reverse Sarkozy's reputation as an anti-intellectual, which is considered suspect in mainstream French leaders. His on-the-record disdain of the 17th-century classic novel La Princesse de Clèves by Madame de LaFayette has become a flash point for the nation's literati. "He knows he has shocked the whole literary part of the nation, which is very important," says Pantheon scholar Jean-Claude Bonnet.
Critics have also pointed out that Camus would have hated the Pantheon. He appreciated the beauty of Lourmarin, and the Pantheon—a former church seized during the French Revolution to honor great men over gods or kings—is invariably described as "glacial" and "austere"; one editorial recently likened the crypt to an underground parking lot. Furthermore, Camus shunned state honors during his lifetime. He declined invitations to the Élysée Palace and called politicians "men without ideals or grandeur."
Other French leaders have boosted their images with their Pantheon picks. President Charles de Gaulle evoked his heroic past when he named Resistance leader Jean Moulin to the Pantheon in 1964. Jacques Chirac bolstered his Gaullist chops in 1996 when he honored de Gaulle's culture minister, the writer André Malraux. He also named Alexandre Dumas in 2002, the most recent inductee. (The only other writers are Voltaire, Rousseau, Hugo, and Zola; no Flaubert, no Proust.) François Mitterrand honored an exceptional seven over 14 years, including Marie Curie, the only woman who didn't ride in on her husband's coattails. "If de Gaulle, Pompidou, or Mitterrand, who were very cultivated people, had wanted to propose [Camus], it would have been seen as normal," says Guérin. But coming from Sarkozy, it's perceived as absurd—beyond even what Camus himself might have imagined.