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What is the significance of the Panthéon on the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève in Paris?

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The Panthéon is the masterpiece of the architect Jacques-Germain Soufflot (22 July 1713 – 29 August 1780) located in the 5th arrondissement on the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève in Paris. The church of Sainte-Geneviève – the patron saint of Paris – was built between 1764 and 1790 under the orders of Louis XV to replace an ancient buried basilica founded in 507 by King Clovis and was erected as a monument in gratitude to God after recovering from a serious illness. This neoclassical style basilica was inspired by the Pantheon of Agrippa in Rome and Soufflot's ambition was to outdo the churches of St. Peter in Rome and Saint Paul's in London. However, at the height of the French Revolution, the Assemblée constituante ratified a decree on 4 April 1791 to convert the use of the church into a national necropolis to house the remains of the great men of the Revolution and renamed it the Panthéon. Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau (9 March 1749 – 2 April 1791) was the first inclusion in this memorial on the milestone date of 4 April 1791 as he had died just two days before. A successful orator, he rose to become the voice of the people during the early years of the French Revolution and was considered a great national hero. A year after his death, his secret dealings with King Louis XVI were discovered and caused his disgrace. As a result, he was disinterred from the Panthéon on 25 November 1794 and his remains were replaced with those of scientist, doctor and radical revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat (24 May 1743 – 13 July 1793), who himself was removed four months later.

During the periods 1821 to 1830 and 1848 to 1851, the building is reverted into a church and it was not until 1885, during the Third French Republic, that the secular character of the Panthéon was permanently restored. In conformity with the inscription above the memorial's entrance – "AUX GRANDS HOMMES LA PATRIE RECONNAISSANTE" ("To great men, the grateful homeland") – buried within its vaults at some point or another are great public figures such as: philosophers Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau; Napoleonic general Jean Lannes, duc de Montebello and Dutch admiral Jan Willem de Winter; admiral and explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville; Scottish cardinal Charles Erskine de Kellie; the Panthéon's own architect, Jacques-Germain Soufflot; novelists and writers Victor Hugo, Émile Zola and Alexandre Dumas, père; assassinated socialist Jean Jaurès; Nobel Prize winners Jean Perrin, René Cassin and Marie and Pierre Curie; educator and inventor Louis Braille; and Second World War member of the Resistance Jean Moulin who was initially buried in Le Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris; among others.

By tradition, every French president is accorded the honour of moving a deceased worthy into this necropolis of the French Republic. In February 2014, French President François Hollande decided to transfer the ashes of four famous Resistants from the Second World War to the Panthéon. On 27 May 2015 – France's national day of Resistance, Germaine Tillion and Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz, as well as Pierre Brossolette and Jean Zay, all resistance fighters, were buried or symbolically interred in the crypt. On 5 July 2017, President Emmanuel Macron announced that the remains of Simone Veil (13 July 1927 – 30 June 2017) – French lawyer and politician, and 12th President of the European Parliament – and her husband Antoine Veil (28 August 1926 – 12 April 2013) – a high-ranking French civil servant – would be transferred to the Panthéon. Their remains were disinterred and removed from Montparnasse Cemetery and the couple was buried in the Panthéon on 1 July 2018. Simone Veil is only the fifth woman in history to be accorded this honour. Two years later, the writer Maurice Genevoix (29 November 1890 – 8 September 1980) entered the Panthéon on 11 November 2020 with "all those of 14", these "ordinary heroes" who fought in the First World War, and who symbolise "the French courage", according to Emmanuel Macron. Covered by the tricolour flag and carried by the Republican Guard, the coffin of Lieutenant Genevoix joined those of the 70 men and 5 women who are buried in this temple of the French Republic. French kings are buried at the Basilica of St.-Denis, just outside Paris, and most post 1789 military leaders, including Napoléon I, are interred at the Cathedral of Saint-Louis, Les Invalides.

On this day, 4 April 2021, we commemorate the 230th anniversary of the first of 76 great public figures of France to be laid to rest at the Panthéon in Paris.

André M. Levesque / Christophe Kervégant-Tanguy

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