Colbert, Gallieni, De Gaulle… The figures at the centre of France’s statue debate

From Confederate leaders in the US, to slave traders in the UK, statues of those with links to racial prejudice have been targeted by protesters around the world in recent weeks. In France, it is statues of figures involved in the country’s colonial past that have been targeted, ranging from a 17th century statesman to a former president.

From left to right, statues of Joseph Gallieni, Charles de Gaulle and Jean-Baptiste Colbert.
From left to right, statues of Joseph Gallieni, Charles de Gaulle and Jean-Baptiste Colbert. © AFP / FRANCE 24

The statue of Joseph Gallieni, a military commander in the French colonies, was the latest to be targeted when it was spray-painted this week with the words “In a museum”.

Gallieni’s military career saw him quell rebellions against colonial rule in Sudan and French Indochina. In 1896 he was appointed governor of Madagascar where he is infamous for suppressing a large-scale uprising, using often brutal tactics including forced labour and summary executions.

The statue of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, outside France’s National Assembly, has also become a focal point in the debate over the removal of memorials to colonial figures. Colbert is best known as the man behind the Code Noir (Black Code), a legal decree that defined the conditions of slavery in the French colonies.

It included rules that said fugitive slaves should have their ears cut off and be branded and that Roman Catholicism was the only religion permitted for slaves.

Charles de Gaulle, meanwhile, is for many in France a national hero who led Free France against the Nazis in World War II.

Later, as president, he helped end a bloody war in the French colony of Algeria, eventually resulting in Algerian independence.

But this week a bust of De Gaulle in Hautmont, northern France, was defaced with the word “slave-driver” written on the statue in an act condemned by local and national politicians.

Despite the controversy over these and dozens of other statues in France, French President Emmanuel Macron has ruled out their removal.

“The French Republic will not erase any records or names from its history,” he said in a televised address on Sunday. “It will not forget any of its work. It will not topple statues.”


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