He had published a remarkable book on the emergence, from the 1970s on, the concept of memory in the landscape of French, established in the line of duty around 1990. It will soon be his reflection on the way France has developed different narratives around its history, with the passage of time (The Nation story). Beyond the hints identitaristes who numbered the attacks on Colbert and Jules Ferry, in the wake of stigmatization of France, allegedly racist, the current controversy is about how France takes up and transmits its past. This is why Emmanuel Macron, in his speech Sunday night, in his repeated desire to embody the country, wanted to say his word on this subject. We asked Sébastien Ledoux to dissect this statement and identify the issues at hand.
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The Point : Sunday evening, Emmanuel Macron, about the protests against the pro-slavery Colbert and the colonialist Jules Ferry, had these words : "The Republic will not erase any trace of it or any name of its History. She will not forget any of his works. "What is your analysis of the historian ?
Sebastien Ledoux : given the situation, we were in need of a clarification. I'm not certain that that has taken place with these remarks. Here we are at the crossroads of History, of memory, of heritage that it is necessary to disentangle. The president of the Republic mix a bit of all these terms. I would like to recall, first, that, in our history, the public authorities or individuals have already erased many traces, as in the beginning of the Nineteenth century, with the acts of the iconoclastic anti-revolutionaries studied by Emmanuel Fureix. Under the Fifth Republic, it was also débaptisé street – Alexis Carrel – secondary – Florent Schmitt... – for facts of writings jihadist collaborators established a posteriori. On the principle, so there are precedents. But here, what is intended, what are statues, which are not innocuous, neutral, in the public space. Emmanuel Macron speaks of "traces," which should not be erased from the History of France. But it is necessary to identify which track it is, with the statue of Colbert in the present instance. These are not direct evidence of the Story, but traces the second degree, the story in public of the national past. They in themselves constitute a narrative of the History. The tribute symbolism that they represent a "process debt" as the central concept of Paul Ricoeur : erecting a statue to a character, we formulate a public debt in respect to what he brought to the community – here national – by its actions ; it pays tribute to him for what he has done, not for what it is. For the case of Colbert, and even if you can't reduce Colbert to the black Code, it seems to me not improper to question this collective debt today.
do you really Believe that, in the years 1830, we wanted to make a tribute to Colbert's Code noir in front of the Palais-Bourbon ?
This is a question also to ask-and which belongs to the history of updates in the narrative of national history. What Colbert did is tribute ? Obviously, it is not, with this act, in the assertion or the valuation of the Code noir, but in the recognition for a great servant of the nation-State. But behind the question with Colbert today opens more broadly to the question of the legacy to the Republic of tributes symbolic from the monarchy. It touches on the issue of the treatment by the Republic of the national past. Different historical narratives of the French nation clashed – sometimes violently with the destruction of monuments during the Nineteenth century between national narrative, revolutionary (the nation would have accomplished in the revolution of 1789 and 1830), and national narrative, legitimist (the history of the nation finds its source and fulfillment in the reign of the monarchs). At the beginning of the Third Republic, historians such as Gabriel Monod, the founder of the Revue historique created in 1876, which stood both against the "lawyers of the past" of the Former Regime and against the "accusers" of the past, and especially Ernest Lavisse, the author of the textbooks, have decided this issue in calling for an end to conflicts of memories monarchical and revolutionary who had travelled to the Nineteenth century. For them, clearly, the historical narrative of the French nation had to forge in a synthesis between the past monarchical and the revolutionary past, they were as inseparable in order to understand the history of the nation (Monod) and to join all the French people, and especially children, to the republican regime, which was interrupted twice before (Lavisse). It is in this synthesis and this double legacy that the Republic was rooted with a narrative of great men, passed down from generation to generation, by integrating figures of the Old Regime as Colbert, as presented in the manual Lavisse primary school as a "great worker" who has modernized the French State. This synthesis was a historical continuity of the nation-State French, and it is this synthesis that is imposed in the transmission school of the national past. We still live largely on the synthesis developed at the beginning of the Third Republic, and which is denounced today in its racial and colonial. It does not bother me that this synthesis can be questioned on assumptions that do not fall within the scope of communitarianism (the debate is on-biased with this scarecrow convenient), but a consistent narrative with the values that underlie our Republic. Once again, it is not only history, but storytelling public of national history and I do not see the name of what this story could not be debated in a democratic space. The important thing is that the debate be democratic, was led from the quiet way, with historical references, and a reflection on the narrative of national history that are not immutable, and non-violence, as in Bristol, where we shot the statue of the merchant of slaves Colston.
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You mentioned the three words memory, history, heritage to distinguish them ? How articulate about these attacks against Colbert ?
on the side of History, the questions concern, in part, the elaboration of the Code noir that goes beyond the person of Colbert, the role of this Code and its application in the slavery system, which was, I remind you, already in place at the end of the Seventeenth century in the French colonies in America, and then a comparison with other codes produced by other european countries to organize the corporate slave owners. On the side of the memory, defined by the philosopher Saint Augustine as a " present of the past ", the identity constructions of black populations are holding more and more since the 1980s-1990s to slavery as a historical fact that is not, to a certain extent, fenced and which has been defined first and foremost as a crime of the past, that the categorization of legal crime against humanity recognized by the "Taubira law" was passed in 2001, recognized. In this context of appropriation of the past – that is not a manipulation, the Code noir of 1685 and Colbert with him are inevitably perceived as markers of racialization, and domination against the black populations still present in the public space (street names, institutions, statues), and more broadly in French society.
And then there's the heritage dimension of the national history defended by the president of the Republic on Sunday evening. However, if it is only in a heritage design, if Colbert is located on the side of the patrimony of the national history, as an intrinsic component of the identity of the nation that would not be questionable when you pass next to the question that is posed to the Republic today. You should not be afraid to question some of the legacies, as has been done recently by the historian Antoine Lilti for the Lights, highlighting his decisive contributions in the history of ideas, but evoking also his strong ambivalences, with the emergence of a racial conception of essentialization and infériorisation against blacks who came to legitimize the atlantic slave trade and the slavery system in America and that the black Code of 1685 structure politically and legally. But keep in mind that this design racist has been reported as of this time in France, for example, by Condorcet. In short, the spirit of nuance and distinction of the records on the uses of the past is needed here.
In a hollow, these debates also illustrate the deficit narrative on the part of the Republic with regard to the figures of the slaves fighting against slavery. When a statue of Jean-Baptiste Belley, a former slave born in Africa, became the first black member of the national history, who participated in the revolt of Saint-Domingue, and which is part of the delegation arrived in Paris to push members of the Convention to vote on 4 February 1794, the decree of the abolition of slavery ?
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