Black lives matter. Repeating this refrain is important not just in the United States, but here in France too. Even as major political figures continue to deny and minimise police brutality, stories of Black people suffering and dying at the hands of law enforcement officers abound. In Paris, as in other cities around the world, protesters have been turning out to demand change, and in particular to call for justice for Adama Traoré, a French man of Malian origin who died on his 24th birthday after being pinned down by police.1
In many parts of the world, discussions of racism in the police have spilled over into talk of dismantling other aspects of our systemically racist societies. One such aspect is the way in which historical slave owners and colonialists continue to be honoured by statues and in the names of our streets. We’ve seen this happen in the US, England, Scotland and Belgium.
It’s not the first time such moves have been made. The statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol had long been the subject of debate, with some having called for its removal and others for a plaque recognising how he made his fortune. In Berlin, a movement has existed for years calling for streets such as Mohrenstraße (“Moor Street”) to be renamed. Petersallee, originally named after murderous colonial leader Carl Peters, was officially rededicated in 1986 in honour of Hans Peters, a Nazi-era resistance figure, but activists still want to see it renamed. In Paris, the rue Richepance, named after the General Antoine Richepanse2 who reintroduced slavery in Guadeloupe in 1802 after its abolition during the Revolution, was renamed in 2001 after the Chevalier de Saint-George, the Guadeloupean son of a white planter and an African slave, who campaigned for abolition in the 18th century.
For many, including President Emmanuel Macron, removing statues would constitute rewriting history. France, he said, “will not erase a single name from its history”. Similar arguments have been made elsewhere, including by Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. But is a statue really a historical record? Will removing one really make us forget? Personally, it’s thanks to these recent events that I’ve learned more about the legacy of slavery in cities like Bristol and Glasgow; it’s thanks to events in Brussels and Antwerp that I’ve learned about the genocidal policies of King Leopold II in the Congo. I’ve also discovered things about some of France’s heroes of which I was unaware: more on that below. And as many have pointed out, we remember the atrocities of the likes of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and Mao without placing them on pedestals and naming our streets after them. These actions are undeniably acts of veneration, not mere remembrance.
Port cities like Nantes and Bordeaux, like those on the UK’s western coasts, were built largely with money from the slave trade, and benefactors who helped build them are honoured in the names of their streets. Rather than renaming these, Bordeaux opted to add plaques detailing the negative side of their history.
In the northern city of Lille stands a statue of Louis Faidherbe, a general who successfully defended the city during the Franco-Prussian War. However, Faidherbe was also a colonial governor of Senegal, prompting calls for this statue to come down.
In some of France’s overseas departments, once colonies with a slave economy, the issue is particularly salient. In Saint-François, Guadeloupe, campaigners want to see the rue Jules Ferry renamed after George Floyd. Ferry is honoured in France for his time as education minister in the 1880s, when he introduced universal free, secular education3; he even features in the citizen’s booklet given to naturalisation candidates. But while in government, he promoted colonial expansion, saying the “superior races” have a “duty to civilise the inferior races”. He was instrumental in the occupation of Tunisia, Madagascar, parts of West Africa, and Indochina.
Opposite the prefecture in Saint-Denis, the capital of Réunion, stands a statue of 18th-century governor Mahé de la Bourdonnais, who made money from the slave trade and built public buildings using slave labour. Calls have been made to remove this statue, and protesters affixed a poster to it with the message “I am a slaver”.
On 22 May, two statues of white abolitionist Victor Schœlcher were torn down in the Martinican capital of Fort-de-France. This was three days before the murder of George Floyd, but has since been associated with the more recent protests. Schœlcher fought a successful battle for the 1848 abolition of slavery, but was a defender of colonialism and supported the payment of compensation to slave owners, something which protesters suggest is responsible for racial inequalities that persist to this day. His celebration is also seen as problematic for another reason: it presents France as a benevolent abolitionist country, drawing attention away from the horrors for which it is responsible, as well as ignoring the efforts of slaves themselves in their fight for freedom.
In the national capital, the main target of attacks has been the statue of Jean-Baptiste Colbert which stands outside the National Assembly building. As First Minister of State under Louis XIV, he was a colonial expansionist and – most infamously – drafted the Code Noir governing the conditions of slavery and punishments to be inflicted on wayward slaves. Colbert also has a road named after him, the rue Colbert, in the 2nd arrondissement.
I’ve mentioned Louis Faidherbe and Jules Ferry, two other men celebrated in France despite their colonial links. In Paris, both a street and a metro station4 are named after Faidherbe; a boulevard bears the name of Ferry, and his statue stands in the Jardin des Tuileries. Meanwhile, Revolutionary general Jacques-François Dugommier, a fervent supporter of slavery, gives his name to a street and a metro station4; his name is even inscribed in the Panthéon.
What about Napoleon Bonaparte? Better known in the English-speaking world for his European wars, he reintroduced slavery in the French colonies after its abolition during the Revolution; but a street in the 6th arrondissement is named after him, and he has a statue in the Hôtel des Invalides and another atop the Colonne Vendôme. Or, since we’re discussing Colbert, why not the king for whom he wrote the Code Noir, Louis XIV? The Place Vendôme was once called the Place Louis-le-Grand, after this conquering monarch; it was renamed during the Revolution, but the adjoining rue Louis-le-Grand retains the name to this day. The Sun King has a prominent statue, too – on horseback in the centre of the Place des Victoires – and two triumphal arches, the Porte Saint-Denis and the Porte Saint-Martin, bear the proud inscription Ludovico Magno – “to Louis the Great”.
There are other monuments to colonialism in Paris which don’t depict individuals, but do celebrate colonial expansion. One example is the Monument à la Gloire de l’Expansion Coloniale Française erected in 1915 in the Bois de Vincennes, with five sculptures: a seated woman to represent the Republic; a French cockerel atop a globe; and three more women to represent the Antilles, Africa and Asia. Relocated to the Porte Dorée for the Colonial Exposition of 1931, it was moved several times afterwards and ended up back in the park.
When in 1934 the monument to colonial expansion was relocated from the Porte Dorée, it was to make room for another work of sculpture, this time to remember the “Marchand mission”, an 1898 French attempt to take control of the Upper Nile which ended in the Fashoda Incident. Given that this incident is considered a humiliation for the French (who were forced to withdraw as the British gained control of the region), it’s perhaps surprising this monument was ever erected, even in an era when colonial escapades were viewed positively. Constructed of stone and bronze, the work depicts six French soldiers and six Senegalese Tirailleurs.
The way forward
Should all these monuments be destroyed or removed to museums? Should plaques be added to each of them to transform them from objects of adoration to tools of education? Any proposition will meet controversy, and I don’t claim to know the right answers; as a white foreigner, I don’t claim the right to make such decisions. But it does seem clear to me that the discussion is a fair one and should be had.
With all of this said, while such discussions can easily fill a newspaper column or indeed a blog post, it’s important not to let them derail other more important conversations. Systemic racial inequalities are a very real modern-day problem for people of minority origin in France and elsewhere, and police brutality is literally an issue of life and death. In case, like me, you’ve been wanting to do something about this but have been unsure how, I’ll conclude with a few links that might help you get started.
- 11 Things You Can Do To Help Black Lives Matter End Police Violence from Teen Vogue. This article has a US focus, but there are plenty of things we can do wherever we are.
- How to support Black Lives Matter, wherever you are from Time Out. Again, the focus is on the USA, but there is also some specific information for UK residents.
- Black Lives Matter: What can you do? from Hackney Citizen. This is aimed at readers in Hackney, London, but again includes information that could be useful to people around the world, including a reading list.
- “Let’s wake up”, an open letter in news magazine L’Obs by French actor Omar Sy with an associated petition.
- Laissez-Nous Respirer (Let Us Breathe), a petition to the president from families of victims of police brutality in France, supported by campaign groups such as the Human Rights League, with a specific list of demands around minimising dangerous police practices.
Traoré’s death is linked to an interrogation technique called plaquage ventral: lying a suspect face down and applying weight to the torso. The Interior Minister has announced that chokeholds involving the neck will be banned, but this particular technique will be allowed to remain in use, despite having been linked to other deaths: those of Cédric Chouviat, Mohamed Gabsi, and others including Mohamed Boukrourou, Mohamed Saoud, Lamine Dieng, Hakim Ajimi, … ↩
The spelling difference is historical, not a typo. ↩
Outside Metropolitan France, public education wasn’t made truly universal, with priority given to the children of colonists over the local non-white populations. ↩