The death of George Floyd on May 25, in the United States, as well as the worldwide resurgence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, have reignited the debate on systemic racism toward Black people in Western societies.
Recent BLM protests in France have revived calls for justice for Adama Traoré, a Frenchman originally from Mali, who was killed following police questioning in 2016. But the question of controversial statues has received little media attention in France, despite this former colonial power’s contested heritage.
Now, global BLM protests have amplified and accelerated the quest to tear down contested figures in French history.
This follows on the heels of contested figures falling throughout the world. On June 7, Black Lives Matter activists took down the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in the English port of Bristol, a major slave trade site in the 17th and 18th centuries. In Belgium, several statues of King Léopold II, responsible for major atrocities against the Congolese people between 1885 and 1908, were vandalized throughout June and are now subject to a petition calling for their removal.
The French empire was established between the 16th and 20th centuries and spanned a total of 12,000,000 square kilometers across all continents at one point, leaving no shortage of controversial historical figures.
In Lille, the “Faidherbe Must Fall” movement focuses on General Louis Faidherbe, a serviceman praised for his accomplishments in the 1870 Franco-Prussian war, but was also a “key actor in the conquest of Senegal,” and led bloody “pacification” campaigns in the mid-19th century.
In Paris, activists have also targeted the statue of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, a minister under King Louis XIV in the 17th century, which now sits in front of the French National Assembly. Colbert, the author of “Code Noir,” or “Black Code” for the French West Indies, published in 1685, outlined slave owner rights over slaves, describing them as êtres meubles or “chattel.”
Slavery was then banned in mainland France but still practiced in the colonies.
In 2017, Louis-George Tin, president of the Representative Council of France’s Black Associations (CRAN) stated: “Colbert was the enemy of liberty, equality and fraternity” [the motto of the French Republic]. More recently, former French prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault called for places bearing his name to be renamed.
A statue of Georges Cuvier, a 19th-century naturalist and anatomist, is also displayed in several French towns. Cuvier, holding racist scientific theories of the time, endeavored to dissect the body of Saartjie Baartman, known as the “Hottentot Venus,” after her death. The Black Autonomous Action Coordination is particularly critical of this controversial figure: