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French leader rejects racism but colonial statues to remain

French President Emmanuel Macron, wearing a protective face mask, speaks in front of a blackboard at an elementary school
French President Emmanuel Macron, wearing a mask, speaks with schoolchildren during a class at an elementary school outside Paris in May.
(Ian Langsdon / Pool photo)

French President Emmanuel Macron 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.

It was the first time Macron has spoken on the issues since George Floyd’s killing in police custody in the U.S. unleashed protests around the world, including several in France, where demonstrators have expressed anger at racial injustice and police brutality, particularly toward minorities from France’s former colonies in Africa.

Unusually for a French leader, Macron acknowledged that someone’s “address, name, color of skin” can reduce their chances at succeeding in French society, and he 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 colonial-era figures as has happened in some other countries in recent weeks.

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Amid calls for taking down statues tied to France’s slave trade or colonial wrongs, 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,” including relations with Africa, with a goal of “truth” instead of “denying who we are,” Macron said.

He didn’t address accusations of police violence but said forces of order deserve “the nation’s recognition.”

Macron also announced that France will reopen nearly everything starting Monday after three months of coronavirus confinement measures.

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The president promised an internal audit into how his administration handled the coronavirus — notably compared with other countries like Germany. That’s in addition to a parliamentary inquiry already underway.

Despite having one of the world’s best healthcare systems, France was dangerously short of all kinds of masks and testing capacity as coronavirus patients overwhelmed intensive care wards in March. More than 80 lawsuits have been filed accusing the government of manslaughter, neglect or otherwise mishandling the virus crisis.

Macron sent in the army to help and ordered strict lockdown measures that slowed the spread. But nearly 30,000 people have died, about half of them in nursing homes, and more than 150,000 have been infected. More than 200 new virus clusters have emerged since France started reopening May 11, according to the national health agency.

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

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At least 15,000 people demonstrated in Paris on Saturday, the latest in a string of French protests galvanized by Floyd’s death in the U.S. 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, which said police are being unfairly painted as white supremacists and staged protests of their own.

Calls are also mounting to reassess France’s colonial legacy, causing division within Macron’s own camp.

Over the last two days, the culture minister denounced the decision to cancel a Paris showing of “Gone With the Wind” — a film long criticized as romanticizing slavery — as contrary to freedom of expression. And he firmly condemned activists who tried to take a piece of African art from a Paris museum dedicated to artwork from former colonies.

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But government minister Sibeth Ndiaye — a close Macron ally 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.

Macron’s office firmly denied a report last week that he was considering resigning and calling a snap election, but the rumor reflected the gravity of the French mood.

A new forecast last week from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development showed France’s economy will suffer more than most from the coming recession — and isn’t expected to improve much by the next presidential election in 2022.

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The economy is expected to shrink at least 11% this year, pushing many out of work and torpedoing Macron’s goals of bringing down unemployment, rehauling the retirement system and making France more globally competitive.


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