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Tear Down that Statue, Mr. Macron!

On Sunday, June 7, 2020, in the city of Bristol, British protesters toppled and then dragged into the river a statue of Edward Colston, a notorious 17th-century trafficker of Africans. Like the assembled crowd in Bristol, many bystanders on Twitter erupted with cheer when video surfaced of the heavy structure being rolled into the waterway that leads out to the Atlantic Ocean, which also serves as a tomb for the millions of Africans who died during the Middle Passage. “These are the waters the ships of the Royal Africa Company Edward Colston created sailed from on their way to Africa to purchase captives who were enslaved in the Americas,” Laurent Dubois pointed out.

Right afterward, several other prominent academic tweeters speculated about which other British statues might similarly be deposed. “Cecil Rhodes and Oliver Cromwell should be next to fall,” said Ana Lucia Araujo.

And statues of Columbus across the United States are now falling left and right, too.

These developments have left some Tweeters wondering if any statues in France might be deserving of disposal.

While the names of enslavers and traffickers whose plaques line the streets of French cities like Nantes and Brest were brought forth as appropriate candidates for removal — along with a statue perched at Invalides of the colonialist Gallieni who infamously exiled the Queen of Madgascar  — no one has yet discussed the statue of Thomas Jefferson that sits on the Passarelle Léopold Sédar Senghor (formerly, the Pont de Solférino) in the 7th arrondissement of Paris.

Most French people are well aware that Thomas Jefferson served as ambassador to France for the newly formed United States of America from 1784 to 1789. Thanks to the movie Jefferson in Paris many Americans probably know this, too. Also well known, but usually only whispered in tentative asides, is that not only was Mr. Jefferson a notorious enslaver in his own right — having personally enslaved more than 600 people over the course of his lifetime — but he has been accused of raping teenage Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman he forcibly took to France with him and with whom he later formed an extensive family.

Here in the United States we have over a half dozen statues of Thomas Jefferson. While these monuments are meant to highlight an ideal history of Jefferson as one of the United States’s “Founding Fathers,” they also remind those of us unwilling to forget that our country’s third president, the architect of the Declaration of Independence, was also an enslaver and by many accounts also a rapist. Because he founded the University of Virginia, the monument to him in my city of Charlottesville, is one we must live with. The question is how? Perhaps, UVA might think about placing a statue of Hemings beside that of Jefferson. 

But there is no reason why France—already troubled by its own long history of slavery and empire—should lionize the man who wrote in the US Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and then turned around and declared in Notes on the State of Virginia, “never yet could I find that a Black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration.” In fact, Jefferson can only be considered marginal to French history. During his time spent in France, he mostly carved out trade agreements, secured rights for consular officials, and cavorted about with his friend the Marquis de Lafayette. No, Jefferson does not belong in today’s global and multicultural Paris.

Instead, I propose four figures from French history whose statues could more appropriately replace Jefferson’s, which having been a gift from the Florence Gould Foundation, was only erected in 2006.

1. Toussaint Louverture (1743–1803) — A bust to the fallen Haitian revolutionary hero, who was deported from Saint-Domingue in 1802 and left to die in a prison in the Jura Mountains by Napoleon, exists in Brest and there is a square named after him in the city of Ivry-sur-Seine just outside of the 13th arrondissement of Paris. However, neither of these small gestures, or the commemorative plaque at the Fort de Joux, are adequate to capture the fact that Toussaint, as a French general, led the defeat of the Spanish and British invading armies in Saint-Domingue. He also created the 1801 constitution for the colony, which declared its inhabitants would remain forever “free and French.” Louverture was willing to die to prevent slavery from returning to French shores. Had he lived, he might have been able to stop France from successfully reinstating slavery in Guadeloupe and Martinique and continuing for 46 more years the institution that France only belatedly acknowledged in 1848 was a “crime against humanity.”

2. Louis Delgrès (1766–1802) — This Guadeloupean freedom-fighter, also an officer in the French revolutionary army, similarly, fought to prevent reinstatement of slavery in the French colony of Guadeloupe. At the end of May 1802 — after Napoleon signed a decree allowing the restoration of slavery in the French empire — Delgrès, along with 400 formerly enslaved people, occupied a fort in Saint-Charles to prevent the French from acquiring the ammunition housed there. Afterwards, they fled to a nearby plantation and blew it up rather than surrender, effectively committing mass suicide in the process. Though the opposition led by Delgrès did not succeed, memorializing his attempt would remind us that bringing back the shameful institution of slavery was a choice made by French leaders, with the support of the majority of French people in France. Common sense dictates that France should celebrate people like Delgrès who tried to stop it, not those like Napoleon who perpetuated it.

3. Paulette Nardal (1896–1985) — The first black woman to study at the Sorbonne, the Martinican born Nardal collaborated with famous Harlem-Renaissance era writers like Aimé Césaire and Claude McKay. Though she never became as well known as either of them, she spearheaded the inclusion of Black women in the anticolonial movement with her Négritude Salon and helped found the influential journal La Revue du monde noir. The journal, which was read around the world, not only provided a platform for US American Blacks like McKay, Langston Hughes, and Alain Locke to decry racism in a France not used to recognizing its existence, but offered a medium for the future president of Senegal, Léopold Sédar Senghor, to argue for decolonization. In April 1976, when she was almost eighty years old, Nardal was awarded one of France’s highest honors, the Croix de Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur for her contributions to French history and culture. Film-makers Mame-Fatou Niang and Amandine Gay have worked hard to bring to light a damning culture of racism against Black women in France. Honoring Nardal places these contemporary struggles in a longer history of Black French female resistance

4. Assia Djebar (1936–2015) — who died of cancer only five years ago, was the first Muslim North African woman to be inducted for life into the Académie Française, the most prestigious intellectual society in France. Born in Algeria, she later attended the École Normale Supérieure in Sèvres. Djebar authored more than a dozen novels, among them L’Amour, la fantasia, which won her the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. Djebar was an ardent defender of women’s rights, and she remained unafraid to expose the repression of women in the Muslim world while simultaneously speaking out against anti-Arab sentiment in France. In a country where Arabs are plainly and openly marginalized, recognizing Djebar with a statue would be one symbolic step in a larger matrix of reforms that French president Emmanuel Macron must consider if he wishes to prevent the kind of deadly police violence that led to the death of two teenagers in the Paris suburbs in 2005, sparking weeks of protests, but no jail time for the officers involved.

It is a famous cliché that in the US, the people are afraid of the government, whereas in France, the government is afraid of the people.

It is true that the French have a long history of resisting the domination of their own government, at least since 1789. Article 2 of the Declaration of Rights of Man declared as “natural and imprescriptible,” “liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.” But, as in most countries with a history of slavery and colonialism, popular French movements also have a deep and long-held tradition of suppressing the voices and eliding the rights of people of color.

Honoring the four figures described above would place les français/es de couleur — as well as the Haitian Revolution, slave revolts, Négritude, and North African resistance— at the center of ongoing struggles to ensure that France lives up to its own ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité, and let us add, sororité.

In a song titled, “Still Sane,” the New Zealand singer known as Lorde opines, “Only bad people get to see their likeness set in stone.” This does not have to be true though. Louverture, Delgrès, Nardal, and Djebar have had far more of a positive influence on French culture than Jefferson. And memorializing them is wholly representative of the French spirit of vive la résistance.