Dennis Broe reflects on the recent attacks on European colonialism and support shown to Black Lives Matter, through the defacement and removal of statues
The first week of European and particularly French and Francophone protests in the wake of the US Black Lives Matter movement concerned parallel police actions against French minorities. This included the death on his birthday of Adama Traoré, held down by three French cops in a hold similar to that executed on George Floyd. Traoré was pronounced dead on arrival at the police station. The official verdict claimed that asphyxiation was caused by the presence in his blood of marijuana. But the family medical examiners reached the conclusion that he died as a result of the chokehold.
Last weekend protestors memorializing Traoré swarmed the streets, despite the Covid prohibition forbidding gatherings of more than 10 people. In the wake of the protests, the Interior Minister announced the chokehold was now banned. The protests were peaceful and most of the marchers wore masks and maintained social distancing. One effect though was that they broke the embargo on street demonstrations which were in full force before the confinement, opposing President Macron’s underfunding of hospitals and his attempt to reduce worker pensions.
This week the protestors widened their approach and took aim at the legacy of European colonialism, most prominently by scrawling “I Can’t Breathe,” George Floyd’s last words, on the Belgium statue in Ghent of Leopold II who presided over the genocidal exploitation of the Congo, referred to at the time erroneously as The Belgian Congo. Across the continent memorials fell, including the statue of Edward Colston, a Bristol slave merchant at the time when the British empire amassed a good deal of its wealth by transporting slaves from Africa to the Americas.
In Bordeaux, the city removed plaques on David Gradis Street which proudly proclaimed that between 1718 and 1789 Gradis’ company had powered 221 boats carrying African slaves to the Americas. Nantes, the center of embarkation of slave boats in France, was already ahead of this movement, having created a memorial to the cruelty of the slave trade. It’s an impressive monument – but so is the at times ostentatious wealth of the city, built on the slave trade, the legacy of which may outlast the memorial. All of which brings up the question not just of memorials but of reparations, a question that has so far not been raised here.
French president Macron was quick to take advantage of the situation having already proclaimed his African soft power policy of redressing colonialism by promising to restore some of the art the French looted from West Africa over the years which resides in prominent museums like the Louvre. The French policy in Africa though includes the carrot and the stick because the French army is still in Mali, Mauretania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad.
This tearful history was also recounted in Statues Also Die, Alain Resnais and Chris Marker's 1950s film about the theft of this art and its repositioning as colonial booty in French museums. In the film the statues, wrenched out of their cultural context, appear to tear up, wither and die in the asphyxiation of colonialism.
The colonial tradition endures, however. Laurent Joffrin, the editor of the supposedly left French paper Liberation, which published Sartre’s salvos against French terrorism in Algeria, turned his back on that legacy in decrying the tearing down of colonial statues as partaking in the dangerous work of erasing history. Joffrin wished instead that the statues remain as markers of the colonial legacy. But most are not mere markers – they are celebrations.
Joffrin needn’t worry. France’s colonial history is very deeply rooted and will unfortunately endure beyond the statues. But this week a first salvo was fired across the bow against that legacy, both in France, in other cities in Europe, and across the globe.