Throughout France, long-dead slave traders live on in French port cities like Nantes, Bordeaux and La Rochelle, where streets bear their names. Statues and schools still bear the monikers of Joseph Gallieni, a military commander who quelled rebellions in former colonies, and Jules Ferry, who is lauded for founding the secular school system, but who also believed in superior races.
Here, as in Europe’s other former colonial powers, police violence, #BlackLivesMatter protests and toppled Confederate monuments in the United States are sparking attacks on colonial-era relics and soul searching in France –including how the country should move forward.
Some, including former socialist Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, want the names of at least some controversial historical figures to be scrubbed from streets and monuments, or to at least add contextual plaques. Others believe doing so offers a dishonest take on history — and still others claim today’s French should not have to apologize for their forebears.
“With the slavery debate again out in the open in the U.S., it seems to me that militant groups are taking the opportunity to open it in France,” said historian Nicole Bacharan.
“Despite very different pasts, both countries are confronted with the key question of ‘do we have the right or not to revisit history?’” Bacharan added. “And I think we do.”
If questions about France’s colonial and slave trading legacy are not new, they have catapulted into the national conversation in recent days, amid swelling protests against police violence and accusations of discrimination against minorities.
Last week, activists tried to steal a 19th century African pole from Paris’ Quai Branly Museum, with the apparent intent of returning it to Africa.
And even before George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis, protesters in the French overseas territory of Martinique attacked a pair of statues of 19th century abolitionist Victor Schoelcher – who was also a staunch supporter of colonialism.
More recently, ex-prime minister Ayrault waded into the debate, calling buildings named after 17th century French statesman Jean-Baptiste Colbert to be rebaptized.
“Maybe we should say he wasn’t just a great economy minister, but also the minister of colonialism and the minister of the Black Code,” Ayrault said in an interview with French radio, referring to the code that regulated conditions for slavery in former French colonies.
But Sunday, French President Emmanuel Macron flatly rejected editing or obscuring the colonial-era monikers.
“The Republic will not wipe away any trace or any name from its history,” Macron said in a televised address. “It will not forget any of its works. It will not take down any of its statues but lucidly look at our history and our memory together.”
The debates and protests are mirrored in other European countries with colonial pasts.
In Belgium, protesters burned and daubed in blood red a statue of King Leopold II, who oversaw the brutal rule of the then-Belgian Congo, which he treated as his personal property. Leopold’s grand-niece, Princess Esmeralda, has called for an official Belgian apology on colonization.
In Britain, where protesters toppled a slave trader statue in Bristol, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the country cannot “edit or censor history.” Yet Johnson has also sparked anger, including in Africa, for downplaying Britain’s past and role in the slave trade, as a member of parliament in 2002.
Yet both countries, along with the Netherlands and soon, Germany, have national museums dedicated to their colonial histories. France does not.
Addressing France’s past
Still, perhaps more than many of his French predecessors, President Macron has taken steps to address France’s colonial past. As presidential candidate in 2017, he sparked controversy for calling France’s colonization of Algeria a “crime against humanity.”
More recently, he announced France would return looted artifacts to former African colonies that request them.
“I belong to a generation which was not that of colonization,” Macron said in a visit to Abidjan last December, following an announcement that another colonial symbol — the West African CFA franc currency — would be transformed into the Eco.
But now, Macron’s thumbs down to removing colonial-era names from edifices and streets has sparked sharp divisions.
“He’s shutting the discussion,” said Karfa Diallo, the Senegalese head of Bordeaux-based association of Memoires et Partages (Memories and Sharing), which has fought for greater awareness of the city’s darker legacy as a former slave trading port. “The government is absent from the debate. It doesn’t realize the ... anger that’s mounting worldwide.”
On the other side of the debate, former far-right lawmaker Marion Marechal rejected any links to the colonial past in the recent deaths of African American Floyd and Frenchman Adama Traore, who was killed in police custody in 2016.
“I don’t have to apologize as a white French woman,” she tweeted recently.
For others, remembering the past, with all its blemishes, is essential.
“Removing names from roads for the symbolism in some cases is important,” said prominent historian Pascale Blanchard in an interview with France Info radio. But others should be left alone, Blanchard said, with explanatory plaques added instead.
“We can’t make history without a trace, without patrimony, without an archive,” he said.