As statues topple elsewhere, French leader won't 'erase' history

President Emmanuel Macron balked at taking down statues of colonial-era figures as he faces heat from both racial injustice protesters and police unions.

Thibault Camus/AP
Assa Traore (right, on stage) addresses a crowd demonstrating against police brutality and racism in Paris, June 13, 2020. Her brother Adama Troare, a Black man, died in police custody in 2016 under unclear circumstances despite years of analysis.

French President Emmanuel Macron has vowed Sunday to stand firm against racism but also praised police and insisted that France wouldn't take down statues of controversial, colonial-era figures, as he addressed the issues for the first time since George Floyd's death in the United States.

In a televised address to the nation on Sunday evening, Mr. Macron called for the nation's "unity" at a key moment when the country is trying to put the coronavirus crisis behind while being shaken by a series of protests against racial injustice and police brutality.

Echoing American protesters, demonstrators in France have expressed anger at discrimination within French society, particularly toward minorities from the country's former colonies in Africa.

Unusually for a French leader, Mr. Macron acknowledged that someone's "address, name, color of skin" can reduce their chances at succeeding in French society, and called for a fight to ensure that everyone can "find their place" regardless of ethnic origin or religion. He promised to be "uncompromising in the face of racism, anti-Semitism, and discrimination."

However, he insisted that France will not take down statues of controversial, colonial-era figures as has happened in some other countries in recent weeks.

Amid calls for taking down statues tied to France's slave trade or colonial wrongs, Mr. Macron said "the republic will not erase any trace, or any name, from its history ... it will not take down any statue."

"We should look at all of our history together with lucidity" including relations with Africa, with a goal of "truth" instead of "denying who we are," Mr. Macron said.

He didn't address accusations of police violence but said forces of order deserve "the nation's recognition."

Meanwhile, his government is facing growing pressure to confront racism and police violence.

At least 15,000 people demonstrated in Paris on Saturday and more in other cities like Marseille and Lyon, the latest in a string of French protests galvanized by the May 25 death of Mr. Floyd – a Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee to his neck – and the Black Lives Matter movement, but increasingly focused on France's own tensions between police and minorities.

In response, the government banned police chokeholds and vowed to stamp out racism among police – but that has now angered police unions, who say they're being unfairly painted as white supremacists and staged protests of their own.

One protest of police unionists on Friday in Paris was small but highly visible, with honking, flags, and blue smoke billowing under rainy skies.

Assa Traore, the sister of Adama Traore, a French Black man who died in police custody in 2016 in circumstances that remain unclear despite four years of back-and-forth autopsies, said that when she saw images of the police protesting, “I wasn't even angry. I was ashamed of the French police. In the whole world, the only country where police officers demonstrate to keep their permission to kill is France.”

Government minister Sibeth Ndiaye – a close ally of Mr. Macron and the most prominent Black figure in current French politics – wrote an unusually personal essay Saturday in Le Monde calling for France to rethink its colorblind doctrine, which aims at encouraging equality by ignoring race altogether.

"We must not hesitate to name things, to say that a skin color is not neutral," she wrote. She called on the French to "confront our memories" about their history and find a "shared narrative" with former colonies.

Mr. Macron's speech also sought to "turn the page" of the virus crisis, as France will reopen nearly everything starting Monday.

Restrictions had started being gradually eased on May 11 after two months of stricter lockdown.

"We are going to get back our way of life, our taste for freedom," Mr. Macron said. "In other words, we are going to rediscover France fully again."

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP writers Arno Pedram and Lori Hinnant contributed to this report.

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