France defends colonial-era statues in the face of anti-racism protests

A statue of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, controller-general of France's finances under King Louis XIV adorns the Palais Bourbon where the French National Assembly is located. Colbert drafted the Code noire, the legal framework for slavery in French colonies. 11 June 2020
A statue of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, controller-general of France's finances under King Louis XIV adorns the Palais Bourbon where the French National Assembly is located. Colbert drafted the Code noire, the legal framework for slavery in French colonies. 11 June 2020 AFP - JOEL SAGET

French President Emmanuel Macron has resisted calls to take down statues with links to colonialism and slavery, vowing not to erase history. For activists, the monuments are a symbol of France’s brutal colonial past.


"The republic will erase no trace or names of its history, (...) it will overturn no statue," Macron said in a televised address on Sunday, resisting pressure from anti-racism activists to tear down statues considered offensive.

"We must instead lucidly look together at our history, all our memory," he argued, referring to France's colonial relationship with Africa.

The debate over monuments to controversial figures of the past has been thrust into the limelight by George Floyd's death in the US.

Floyd's murder at the hands of a white officer has prompted widespread racial justice protests in France and around the world and led to the removal or vandalism of monuments with racist legacies.

In the UK, activists dumped a statue of slave trader Edward Colston into Bristol harbour on 7 June, as part of a growing movement to “topple the racists.”

Struggle hijacked

While Macron recognized that some French citizens continue to face discrimination because of their race, in a country that bans racial statistics, he warned against separatism, accusing a small minority of trying to hijack the struggle for equality.

This "noble struggle" against discrimination risks being led astray by "communitarianism," he said, referring to the practice where communities identify with their own culture at the expense of national unity.

It risks becoming a "hateful, false rewriting of the past," he argued, saying that under no circumstances should France "revisit or deny what we are." 

Macron's comments were met with disappointment from activists such as Karfa Diallo, founder of the memorial association Memoires et Partages in the southern town of Bordeaux.

Statues under attack

"The reaction sparked by the death of George Floyd and Adama Traoré in France really required at least one symbol to fall," he says.

“Instead, President Macron failed to grasp the momentum of these anti-racist protests,” he told RFI.

Among targets of anti-racism groups is Jean-Baptiste Colbert, controller-general of France's finances under King Louis XIV. 

While renowned for his discipline in keeping a degree of solvency in French state finances despite the Sun King's extravagance, Colbert is also the man who drafted the Code Noir, or Black Code, that regulated the conditions for slavery in French colonies.

The most prominent Colbert statue located in front of the National Assembly, overlooking the Seine River in Paris, is currently being guarded by police.

Other statues to people with links to France's colonial past and slavery have also been placed under police protection.

"For protesters, there is a strong link between the racism that people experience every day and the racism they see celebrated in the streets," continues Diallo. "You cannot tackle the racism of today without confronting the one of the past."

Resisting historical erasure

On Saturday, former Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault called for rooms and monuments named after Colbert to be renamed. That call was dismissed on Monday by Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire.

The finance ministry will "continue to be called the Colbert building," Le Maire said.

"He is not the one who wrote the Code Noir," he argued, reminding the public that the legal framework for slavery was promulgated two years after Colbert's death.

"I understand that he may be an unsavory character, but Colbert is also the one who reinvented industry and brought finances under control," Le Maire said.

Colbert’s statue and others like his are offensive because they "celebrate the men who made their countries rich through the slave trade," admits historian Pascal Blanchard, a specialist on France's colonial history.

Between the 17th and 19th century, Paris shipped more than 1 million Africans to colonies in the Americas before definitively abolishing slavery in 1848.

However, for Blanchard, removing them would be to forget or erase part of French history, however painful. 

"These statues and sculptures have a pedagogical value. If you start erasing the past, one day people will say it was all a fantasy and history could repeat itself," he told RFI.

Breaking taboos

For Blanchard, who is also the co-author of the book La fracture coloniale or the colonial fracture, the controversial monuments are vital in raising public awareness.

"Children cannot go to museums to find out about France's colonial past because none exist. The topic is still a taboo. These statues allow us in a certain way to discuss history."

Karfa Diallo too agrees that more needs to be done to put France's past into context. The founder of the memorial association Memoires et Partages has long led a campaign to highlight and explain the links to slavery, notably through his Bordeaux Nègre tour of the sights linked to the slave trade.

Last week, the former slave port town began hanging signs and plaques next to five streets bearing the names of slave traders.


It is a crucial step in more accurately framing France's past Diallo reckons. Now he wants the debate to go further in eradicating the legacy of slavery. 

"It is not enough to tear down statues, we have to get rid of the violence and brutality that these statues represent," he said.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning