The statues of Cecil Rhodes, General Lee and others deemed guilty of historic wrongs have been hot on people’s tongues in the UK and beyond, but in France, there has barely been a whisper about such issues until now. So what’s happened to make people speak out for action?
Patrick Silberstein, a retired doctor, together with activist Didier Epsztajn, recently published a Guide to Colonial Paris. The book is a literary revolution that refuses to silence the city’s dark past any longer. It lists 200 streets principally in Paris that have been named after places conquered by the French, or that honour men who played a part in building its empire. It’s an empire that stretched all the way from the Americas to the Far East, uncomfortably entwined with the cruelty of a colonial and slave-trading past.
This includes the street of Gambetta, for example, after which a Paris metro stop also takes its name. Originally, the name ‘Gambetta’ came about to honour the revered 19th-century statesman Léon Gambetta. But as Mr Silberstein argues in his book, it should not be forgotten that he was, “a fervent supporter of colonial expansion, of the conquest of Algeria, of Indochina, of French expansion in Africa.”
The authors of this book are not campaigning for the streets to be renamed, as renaming 200 of them would be an administrative disaster. But they would like to see a plaque added to each sign in Paris offering a short account of its darker history. This demand seems fair enough given that much of this side of history has been omitted from textbooks.
That said, there is one street that Mr Silberstein and fellow activists do request to be renamed. This is Avenue Bugeaud in the smart 16th arrondissement of Paris. It is named after Thomas Robert Bugeaud who was France’s first Governor-General of Algeria. His subjugation of the country in the 19th century was marked by “scorched earth” tactics that the authors insist must be denounced. These tactics included merciless burning of locals’ crops, demolishing their villages and even slaughtering those who resisted.
The true history of these street names that we so often pay little attention to is put under the spotlight in this book and aims to bring a sense of justice. It makes sure that the country’s colonial and slave-trading past, and the vast cost to human life, are brought into the light.