Colonial abuses haunt France's racism debate

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Protesters with a Justice for Adama bannerImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Adama Traoré's death in 2016 sparked protests across France

Two dead men have become the faces of France's current racism debate.

Adama Traoré, a young black man from the Paris suburbs who died in police custody four years ago; and Jean-Baptiste Colbert, a white aristocrat from the 17th Century who managed the country's finances under King Louis XIV.

One is remembered today in demonstrations against police brutality; the other with a marble statue outside the National Assembly.

"We've been fighting here in France for four years," Adama's sister, Assa Traoré, told us. "My brother's case is [well] known, but it's George Floyd's death that will really expose what's going on here in France."

Adama Traoré was 24 years old when he was arrested by police after running away from an ID check outside Paris. He died at a police station hours later. The cause of his death has been fiercely disputed, and several inquiries produced conflicting results.

Tens of thousands of people have turned out this month at protests in his memory, boosted by the impact of events in the US.

Image caption,
Assa Traoré, the sister of Adama Traoré, is an active anti-racism campaigner

"We are importing ideas from the US," says historian Sandrine Le Maire, an expert on French colonialism.

"The deaths of Adama Traoré and George Floyd happened in similar circumstances, but our historical baggage is not the same. There was no lynching here, or racial laws.

"There are stereotypes, inherited from colonisation, but racism has never entered our legislation."

In the US, where official national data is not available, the Washington Post has counted more than 1,000 deaths from police shootings alone in the past year. It says a disproportionate number of the victims were black.

The French police say they don't have figures for all deaths in police custody. They say 19 people died last year during police interventions, but there is no data on their ethnic origin because it is illegal to collect this information in France.

Equality for all?

France's concept of national identity is based around the unity and equality of its citizens. State policies that single out one particular group - based on ethnicity, for example - are seen as damaging.

But many from France's ethnic minorities say this ideal of equality is being maintained in theory at the expense of reality, and that racism - in policing, schools or the job market - is impossible to tackle if it cannot be quantified.

Media caption,

There were clashes in Paris as police threw tear gas at protesters who hit them with stones

Last weekend, President Emmanuel Macron's own spokeswoman, Sibeth Ndiaye, added her voice to those calling for a new debate about ethnic data.

Senegalese-born Ms Ndiaye said in an open letter that, for France's national vision to prosper in the face of extremist narratives from both sides, it was necessary to "measure and look at reality as it is".

"Let us dare to publicly debate subjects that have become taboo," she urged. Her suggestion was immediately shot down by senior - white - ministers in the government.

France requires its immigrant citizens to adopt the history, culture and story of the République. "Multiculturalism", one historian told me, "is a dirty word here".

But whose story is it?

And so to Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who sits with his long marble curls and finery outside the National Assembly.

'Black Code'

Barely noticed by most of the drivers honking their horns as they crawl past him along the Left Bank of the Seine, but a target for those who say it's time to re-examine this kind of public history in France.

Because Colbert, famous for running France's finances under its Sun-King, Louis XIV, was also the brains behind its notorious 'Black Code', a set of rules for how black slaves would be treated in its colonies.

Inspired by scenes of demonstrators across the Channel in Bristol throwing the statue of Edward Colston into the city's river, some here are now calling for Colbert to be unseated from his prominent position. He also has a room named after him inside the assembly building.

France's former prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, now president of the Foundation for the Remembrance of Slavery, says the Colbert room should be renamed, but he draws the line at abolishing statues or street names.

"We are in a new stage with the death of George Floyd and youth movements across France," he said.

He has suggested that France revisit its monuments and street names, to give greater explanation and context, as an alternative to simply removing them. "We need to do the work of remembrance," he says.

"You can't erase history," Sandrine Le Maire explained. "Or we'll start erasing everything and anything: castles, palaces, monarchies. We need symbols, even if they shock us. Historical figures are multifaceted: [Marshal] Pétain was a First World War hero for 20 years before being rejected as a collaborator [during the Second World War]."

President Macron, speaking to the nation last week, agreed: "The Republic will not erase any trace or name from its history," he said. "It won't remove any statue."

The challenge of remembrance

So, no review of France's statues or street names - at least, not yet. Mr Macron is not one who likes being forced into decisions by events.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Jean-Baptiste Colbert devised rules for how black slaves would be treated in French colonies

But he has been more outspoken than most French leaders about the country's past, courting outrage before his election by saying that France had committed "crimes against humanity" against its former colony, Algeria.

And it's France's history - not its statues - that holds the answer, says Jean-Francois Mbaye, a black French MP who was born in Senegal.

"Are we ready to teach the history of French slavery, French colonisation?" he asks. "France's former colonies know their history, but I don't think our people, our youth, know it."

"It can be gratifying to remove a statue and throw it in the river," he told me. "But then what?"

Assa Traoré believes that, if Colbert's statue is to remain in front of the National Assembly, his deeds "should be written on the statue's plaque by a black man. Let a black man tell us who Colbert was and what the Black Code meant, not a white man."

Other names, reflecting the stories of France's non-white citizens, should be added to the country's streets, she says, and other statues erected outside its buildings.

Black Lives Matter is a slogan that resonates here, but black lives - whether in data or in monuments - are sometimes hard to see in the official story of France.