Top French historian slams Macron's hardline stance on statues

Jean-Baptiste Colbert was responsible for drawing up the notorious Code Noir (Black Code) governing slavery in the French empire (AFP Photo/JOEL SAGET) (AFP/File)
·3 min read

Paris (AFP) - A leading historian attacked French President Emmanuel Macron's stance on disputed statues linked to the country's colonial past Wednesday, saying he had "hugely confused" history and memory.

Macron all but ignored the wave of Black Lives Matter protests in a major television address last week except to warn that France would not take down statues of controversial historical figures.

"The Republic will not wipe away any trace or any name from its history... but lucidly look at our history and our memory together," the president said.

But historian Nicolas Offenstadt pulled him up sharply, telling French radio that Macron had a made a "hugely damaging confusion between history and memory that will not help public debate in France."

His intervention comes after Oscar-nominated black filmmaker Raoul Peck accused France of being in denial of its racism, its colonial past and its wealth "built on the misery of others".

The former Haitian culture minister, who has long lived in France, said protesters who have taken to the streets in the US and France "are right to rise up. They are right to protest, they may even be right to smash everything," he added.

- Statue attacked -

A statue of the 17th-century statesman Jean-Baptiste Colbert in front of the French parliament was sprayed with graffiti on Tuesday night condemning the "negrophobie d'Etat" (the state's fear of black people).

Colbert was responsible for drawing up the notorious Code Noir (Black Code) governing slavery in the French empire for the "Sun King" Louis XIV in 1685, and for banning Jews from its colonies.

A statue of colonial administrator General Louis Faidherbe has also sparked prtoests in the northern city of Lille.

Offenstadt, who is best known for groundbreaking books on French soldiers shot by firing squad during World War I, and the former East Germany, said memory and history were two very different things.

He said memory, which is often symbolised by statues, is "something a lot more lived, more personal, subjective, chosen and more intense.

"We can unbolt a statue... that is not rewriting history. No one can rewrite history," Offenstadt said.

"But memory is something we chose and which we promote collectively together," the historian added.

- Debate needed -

Offenstadt said Macron should have encouraged a wide debate between historians and the public and let people explain their problems with monuments linked to slavery and colonialism rather than trying to close the argument down.

Between toppling and statue and keeping it in place there was a huge range of solutions and compromises, he argued.

Plaques could put them in context and offer other narratives, he insisted, some statues could be placed in museums, and others could be made to face off with counter monuments to show how history was disputed.

Macron admitted that colonial rule had left a legacy that remains a subject of anger for many to this day.

And he acknowledged that France had to fight against the fact that your "name, address, and colour of your skin" can affect a person's life chances today.

But he insisted that France was "nation where everyone -- whatever their origin and religion -- can find their place."

Many activists disagree however, and Human Rights Watch has urged France to halt identity checks by the police that are "abusive and discriminatory" towards black and Arab males.

Former prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said that a hall in parliament named after Colbert should also be renamed.