Some, including former socialist Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, want the names of at least a part of controversial historical figures to be cleaned in the streets and the monuments, or at least add context-sensitive plates. Others believe that this gives a dishonest take on history — and still others claim today that the French should not have to apologize for their ancestors.
“With the slavery debate, once again, in full in the UNITED states, it seems to me that militant groups have seized the opportunity to open in France,” said the historian Nicole Bacharan.
“Despite different pasts, the two countries are confronted with the key question of” do we have the right or not to revisit the history?'” She added. “And I think we do.”
The national Conversation
If you have any questions about colonial France and the slave trade inheritance 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 have tried to steal a 19th century African pole of Paris’s Musée du Quai Branly, with the apparent intention of the return to Africa.
And even before George Floyd kill in Minneapolis, protesters in the French overseas territory of Martinique were attacked by a pair of statues of the 19th century, the abolitionist Victor Schoelcher who was also a staunch supporter of the colonization.
More recently, the ex-prime minister Ayrault is committed in the debate, calling the buildings by the name of the 17th-century French statesman Jean-Baptiste Colbert to be re-baptised.
“Maybe we should say that it was not only a great minister of the economy, but also the minister of colonization and the minister of the Black Code,” Ayrault said in an interview with the French radio, referring to the code that has regulated the conditions of slavery in the former French colonies.
But on Sunday, the French President, Emmanuel Macron has categorically rejected the edition or the concealment of the colonial era monikers.
“The Republic will not wipe any trace or the name of the story,” Macron said in a televised speech. “He will not forget any of his books. It will not take down one of his statues, but clear-eyed look at our history and our memory.”
The debates and protests are mirrored in other European countries with a colonial past.
In Belgium, protesters burned and smeared with red blood, a statue of King Leopold II, who oversaw the brutal rule of the Belgian Congo, which he treated as his personal property. Leopold’s niece, the Princess Esmeralda, has called for a Belgian official apology on settlement.
In great Britain, where protesters have overthrown a slave statue in Bristol, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson has declared that the country “may not modify or censor the story.” However, Johnson has also stirred anger, particularly in Africa, to minimise the importance of the Britain of the past and their role in the slave trade, as a member of parliament in 2002.
Yet, in both countries, as well as the netherlands and soon in Germany, have national museums dedicated to their colonial histories. France did not.
The address of France’s past
Still, perhaps more than many of its French predecessors, President Macron has taken steps to address france’s colonial past. As a presidential candidate in 2017, it has sparked controversy for calling France’s colonization of Algeria as a “crime against humanity”.
More recently, it was announced that the France would return looted artifacts to the former African colonies who request it.
“I belong to a generation that is not that of the colonization,” Macron said during a visit to Abidjan last December, following an announcement that another colonial symbol of the West Africa CFA franc, the currency would be transformed into Eco.
But now, Macron thumb down to remove colonial names from buildings and streets has triggered deep divisions.
“It is the judgment of the discussion,” said Karfa Diallo, the Senegalese head of Bordeaux-an association of Memories, and Sharing (Memories and Sharing), which has struggled for greater awareness of the city the darker the legacy of a former slave trading port. “The government is absent from the debate. It does not take into account the … of the anger mounting in the world.”
On the other side of the debate, the former right-wing member of parliament Marion Maréchal rejected any link to the colonial past, in the recent death of the african-American Floyd and the French Adama Traore, who was killed by the police, police custody, in 2016.
“I don’t have to apologize as a white French woman,” she tweeted recently.
For the other, remembering the past, with all its imperfections, is essential.
“Remove the names of routes for the symbolism, in some cases, is important,” said the eminent historian Pascal Blanchard in an interview with France Info radio. But others should be left alone, Blanchard said, with explanatory panels added to the place.
“We can’t make history without leaving a trace, without a heritage, without an archive,” he said.