For several weeks, when the mobilization against racism crossed the world, France had been divided by the fate reserved for statues representing historical figures linked to slavery or colonialism.
Global movement to raise awareness of racism in our societies
The death of George Floyd in the United States on May 25 and the renewal of the Black Lives Matter movement worldwide rekindled the debate on systemic racism against blacks within various Western societies. France is no stranger to this debate, which has expanded since the death of Adama Traoré, a Frenchman of Mali origin, after police officers arrested him in 2016. His family continues to demand justice.
Part of this debate stands out: statues of controversial historical figures. On 7 June in the English port of Bristol, a central trading point for blacks in the 17th and 18th centuries, the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was demolished by Black Lives Matter militants. In Belgium, several statues of King Leopold II – architect of the Congo colonization and responsible for atrocities against the Congolese people in 1885 and 1908 – were smashed in June and there was a request for their removal.
In metropolitan and overseas France different figures are questioned
In France, the debate had little media attention. However, the figures of heritage disputed are numerous in this ancient colonial power, whose empire constituted between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries spread across all continents, reached its peak with an area of 12 million km2.
In Lille, it is the figure of General Louis Faidherbe, a native of this northern French city, who poses problems. According to the Faidherbe doit tomber collective (Faidherbe must fall), this military man famous for his exploits in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 was also a “key actor in the conquest of Senegal” and responsible for bloody “peacekeeping” campaigns in the mid-19th century. .
In Paris, the bust of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, a minister in the 17th century during the reign of Louis XIV, placed in front of the National Assembly, is also under fire. He was the author of the Black Code for the French Antilles, published in 1685, which defined the rights of the owners over their slaves, whom he describes as “movable property”. Slavery was prohibited in the metropolis, but it was practiced in the colonies. In 2017, Louis-George Tin, president of the Representative Council of Black Associations (CRAN) declared: “Colbert was the enemy of freedom, equality, and brotherhood” (motto of the French Republic). More recently, former Prime Minister Jean Marc Ayrault asked to change the name of the places that bear his name.
Another controversial figure is Georges Cuvier, a naturalist and anatomist from the early 19th century, with statues in various cities in France. It represented the racist scientific theories of the time, and prompted the dissection of the corpse of Saartjie Baartman, nicknamed the Hottentot Venus. He was denounced by the Black Autonomous Action Coordination group:
“La France n'est pas raciste” il faut vraiment être né avant la honte pour le penser et le dire dans un pays où l'apologie d'esclavagistes est partout: rues, statues et bâtiments.
Du 8 au 30 juin sortons les de leur anonymat confortable! # EsclavagistesPartoutRéparationsNullePart pic.twitter.com/fjCBIQbuF0
– C.A.A.N Coordination Action Autonome Noire (@ActionNoire) June 15, 2020
SLAVERIES ALL OVER
Anatomist and naturalist
Genetic racism theorist. Dissected the corpse of Sawtche, Sarah Baartman, known as the Hottentot Venus.
“France is not racist.” You really have to have been born before shame to think it and say it in a country where the apology of the slavers is in all the streets, statues and buildings.
From June 8 to 30 let's get them out of their comfortable anonymity!
Overseas, in the territories of the French colonial empire now linked to the republic, the question remains. In Martinique, two statues of Victor Schoelcher (1804-1893), an abolitionist figure demanding compensation from the slave-owning colonists, were destroyed on May 22. In Guyana, the local authorities put his statue under police protection:
⚪️ #Guyane : Une nuit à la place Victor #Schoelcher de Cayenne où the statue mémorielle de l'abolitionniste est sous protection policière depuis plus de 24 heures, à l’aube des commémorations locales de l’abolition de l ’#slave pic.twitter.com/8BNFuBJKBs
– Journaleuse in Katouri (@jielem__) June 10, 2020
Guy️ Guyana: One night in the Victor Schoelcher Square in Cayenne, where the abolitionist statue has been under police protection for 24 hours, at the beginning of local commemorations for the abolition of slavery.
In Reunion, the French overseas department in the Indian Ocean, residents ask for the replacement of the statue of Mahé de La Bourdonnais, the island's former governor who profited from the slave trade and used it for public works.
Moi j’ai une vraie question: quand est-ce qu’on revert the status of Mahé de La Bourdonnais? Qu’on enlève cette merde.
– zenfan larényon🇷🇪 (@Laroussoly) June 10, 2020
I have a real question: when do we knock down the statue of Mahé de La Bourdonnais? When do we knock that shit down?
Between withdrawal from public space and the need for contextualization: seeking a balance
While some call for the demolition of the statues linked to colonization and slavery, others consider that it is preferable to use explanatory panels of history that locate the historical figure in context.
Karfa Diallo, director of the Memories and Dealings association, has long promoted the contextualization of street names as of statues that belong to France's colonial or slave past. He stated to France Inter:
(Nous demandsons) that those symboles tombent et que subte des rues soit accompagné d'un dispositif explicatif qui permette de sauvegarder la mémoire que nous avons de ce crime contre l'humanité.
(We demand) that some symbols fall and that the rest of the streets are accompanied by an explaining device that allows us to safeguard the memory we have of this crime against humanity.
For the collective Faidherbe doit tomber, it all depends on the way of contextualizing:
If c’est pour raconter that colonizes me to aspects «positifs», (…) pas sûr que cela soit la solution. S’il s’agit en revanche d’indiquer clairement, sur ces statues elles-mêmes, ce qu’est fondamentalement le colonialisme, à savoir a crime abominable dans son principe même, alors une telle solution pourrait se défendre.
If it is to say that colonialism has “positive” aspects (…), I do not think that is the solution. If it is to make clear in the statues themselves what colonialism is fundamentally, an abominable crime in its own origin, then that solution could be defended.
Statues: history or memory?
Faced with these demands, others defend the presence of these statues in public spaces, and invoke the need not to censor history. For the historian Dimitri Casali, removing the statues is not a solution. In 2017, he wrote in a column in The Huffington Post:
On ne réécrit pas l'Histoire. Déboulonner les statues de nos Grands Hommes c'est ouvrir la boîte de Pandore du révisionnisme historique. (…) L'Histoire, on doit l'assumer. C'est autant glorieux qu'honteux.
History is not rewritten. To demolish the statues of our great men is to open the Pandora's box of historical revisionism. (…) History we must assume. It is equally glorious and shameful.
However, some question the usefulness of the statues and support the story.
For Françoise Vergès, a political scientist, historian and feminist activist interviewed by the Histoires Crépues YouTube channel, the portrait of these statues is a matter of “memorial justice” that “has nothing to do with the elimination of history.” The characters represented in French cities would be the result of “political elections”.
According to Françoise Vergès, the removal of racist and colonial statues is a matter of MEMORIAL JUSTICE.
Public monuments are not “History”. They are memorable political elections. Options that we have the right to question.
The demands for its elimination are part of a broad anti-racist fight that must be complemented by a better teaching of our colonial history.
In a televised speech to the nation, the position of President Emmanuel Macron in this regard was very clear:
La République n’effacera aucune trace ni aucun nom de son histoire. Elle n’oubliera aucune de ses œuvres, elle ne déboulonnera pas de statue. Nous devons plutôt lucidement watering ensemble toute notre histoire, toutes nos mémoires.
The republic will not remove any trace or name from its history. He will not forget any of his works, he will not remove the statue. Above all, we must look lucidly together at our history, all our memories.
Aside from this debate that will continue to increase, netizens promoted the label #JeVeuxUneStatueDe (I want a statue of) to present the black historical figures that they would like to see in public spaces:
– Woke Witch (@stoner_fem) June 15, 2020
I want a statue of Anarcha, the black slave exploited without anesthesia by the American doctor James Marion Sims, inventor of the speculum.
#JeVeuxUneStatueDe Suzanne Belair dite Sanite Belair,
femme qui s'est battue contre le rétablissement de l'esclavage en Haïti. Elle fut captured, played for a colonial court and décapitée. pic.twitter.com/VenBg2s5BX
– Black Lullaby (@MyWords_JustMe) June 15, 2020
I want a statue of Suzanne Belair, known as Sanite Belair, a woman who fought against the reestablishment of slavery in Haiti. She was captured, tried by a colonial court and beheaded.