John Keiger

French statue-topplers make Brits look like a bunch of amateurs

French statue-topplers make Brits look like a bunch of amateurs
Getty images
Text settings

Toppling statues is relatively novel in the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ world, for whom revolutions, coup d’etats and regime change are a rarity. That is why the Anglosphere is taken by surprise when statue toppling happens, why they do it so childishly and with so little historical maturity. But for the French who have been doing it for centuries it is akin to a national sport. That is why they are more experienced and adult about it and why unspoken rules apply.

The French Revolution was by no means the beginning of the French people’s experience of political iconoclasm, but it taught them its excesses and how subsequently to manage it. And they had plenty of opportunity to learn from the domino effect of regimes falling one after the other in a line that stretched from monarchy to republic to empire then back to monarchy, republic, empire and republic, with the Vichy interlude to boot.

What the French Revolution taught was that when unleashed the power of statue toppling and associated destruction gains an exponential momentum. Revolutionaries sought of course to efface the symbols of power of the preceding regime and to appropriate that power themselves. Then, like today, their purpose was to purge the past, destroy a memory considered insulting or that buttressed the regime and guard against its return. So as the Great French Revolution of 1789 advanced – ever more radicalised – so it had more memories and symbols to destroy. After the fall of the Bastille the initial target was feudalism, whose symbols were smashed; with the fall of the monarchy in 1792 it was the statues of kings and queens; with the anti-clerical republic it was churches and the saints. Just as today statue toppling could easily move on to museum ransacking.

However, in the French case the excesses proved partly salutary. Some like Abbé Grégoire, were prompted to speak out against such destruction naming it 'vandalism'. Paradoxically this destruction was a fillip to the new phenomenon of ‘national heritage’. An effort was made to distinguish between monuments for destruction and those for conserving. Thus the tombs of the French kings were spared in 1793, when all around their statues were desecrated. Unspoken conventions emerged as to the management of the landscape of iconoclasm.

A turbulent historical record demonstrated empirically that no historical personage has a god-given right to their statue remaining in the public eye in perpetuity. Indeed the historical wind can change rapidly. A mere 25 years in the case of Marshal Pétain – the great saviour of France in the First World War – whose reputation was toppled by the Second.

This enforced historical maturity combined with celebration of the complexity of the human condition better helps the French grasp intellectually the notion that statues are not an endorsement of the failings of those they represent. Which great person is without blemish? But they are attuned to historical balances shifting. Just as metro stations have always been renamed to take account of historical reappraisals, so French statues have been displaced. Move statues by all means, add new contextual information, but do not destroy them. Displacing statues – some 4000 were erected from 1804 to 2018 – to suit historical whim or even redesigned public spaces is nothing new, as demonstrated by those of Lafayette, Victor Hugo, Gambetta.

Because of France’s turbulent past accounts for history being an instrument of state power. The state has had no qualms about harnessing the potency of history to the unfinished ideal of uniting the French. Memorialisation of France’s ‘great men’ is institutionalised through Le Panthéon, their final resting place. So the counterpoint to statue toppling is the opportunity to upgrade the great and the good from mere statue to ‘pantheonisation’. A risky and very political venture perhaps, but one that allows the nation to reflect on what makes an individual worthy of elevation, warts and all.

But however pragmatic, France today has not escaped the Black Lives Matter movement. Some of the French statues in the firing line are of great names. In front of the French National Assembly is that of Colbert, Louis XIV’s minister who gave his name to the state promotion of French trade, but who was also the author of the infamous 1685 Code Noir, which regulated the commerce of slaves in French lands. 

Victor Schoelcher, pantheonised for having decreed in 1848 the abolition of slavery in France, is now incriminated for supporting French colonisation. His statue has just been toppled in the French overseas department of Martinique, though not in metropolitan France. The City of Nantes – France’s primary slave trading port from the XVII to XIXth centuries – opened a museum celebrating the abolition of slavery, but still retains the street names of the great slave trading families, now under new scrutiny.

Thus far, at least, the mature and circumspect French reaction to BLM statue toppling contrasts with the hysterical and juvenile approach in the Anglosphere. Perhaps the pseudo-revolutionaries should reflect on the words of a member of the revolutionary 1871 Paris Commune who chastised its statue-topplers for the pettiness of their actions: ‘I pity those who do not know how to manage todays history and take vengeance in incriminating stones’.

Written byJohn Keiger

John Keiger is a professor of French history and former Research Director of the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge

Topics in this articleSociety