Catherine Porter, New York Times, December 31, 2022
The statue of Victor Hugo has loomed outside the city hall of his birthplace, situated on the Esplanade for Human Rights, since 2003, his white beard knotty, his black suit rumpled, his face cast down at his pocket watch.
Over the years, the colored bronze began to fade, turning to brown and green, until the mayor’s office recently hired an expert to do a restoration.
And that is when the seemingly unremarkable refurbishment of a statue turned into another controversy in France about race, identity and the importation of American “woke” ideas about racial injustice — what the French call “le wokisme.”
The city hall’s Facebook site announced the statue had been restored to reflect the original work by the celebrated Senegalese sculptor Ousmane Sow, who, it said, liked color and was not keen on “simple bronzes.” The comments rolled in, some positive, others critical with one focus — the color of Hugo’s skin.
“We’ve gone from Victor Hugo to Morgan Freeman,” wrote one commentator.
Mr. Sow, who was often called the Auguste Rodin of Senegal, died in 2016. A reporter from the Besançon newspaper called Béatrice Soulé, Mr. Sow’s widowed partner in Dakar, Senegal’s capital.
She agreed that the restoration was flawed, saying that the statue “looks like a Black Victor Hugo, which was never Ousmane’s intention.”
In a later interview with The New York Times, Ms. Soulé said that perhaps she spoke too freely. “It was a sentence I should never have spoken,” she said. “And it let off a powder keg.”
After another attempt at restoration, the color of the statue was returned to what Ms. Soulé considered “magnificent” and an “exact replica of the original,” which reflected a man of light-brown skin. But what might have been forgiven as part of a complicated restoration process — and quietly corrected — was immediately sucked up into an ugly, protracted battle over social media.
Right-wing politicians accused the city’s Green party mayor of literally trying to paint her politically correct views onto a French hero.
National radio and newspapers picked up the story.
The town hall’s switchboard was flooded by so many furious calls it was shut down.
Two nights after the town hall’s initial Facebook post, masked men vandalized the statue, repainting Victor Hugo’s face “a beautiful white color,” as they called it online, adding that it was now “truly French, truly from Besançon.” On the photograph they took of their work, they added a Celtic cross and the words “white power.”
Two days later, the face of another statue created by Mr. Sow — this one erected near the war memorial to represent “hope” — was similarly vandalized with white paint.
“It signifies a sickness, a crisis in our society in relation to themes of immigration and racism,” Mayor Anne Vignot said in an interview in her office in the city hall, which faces the Hugo statue. She was not involved in the statue’s renovation beyond ordering it, she said, and she was still smarting at how discussion of race and identity had been weaponized in France to dismiss ideals she thinks should be upheld.
“I will always fight against discrimination,” she said. “So, for me, if wokism is the fight against discrimination, then I reaffirm, I am woke.”
On the other side are those like Xavier-Laurent Salvador, who co-directs the Observatory of Decolonialism and Identity Ideologies, set up to challenge the use of critical race and gender theories in France.
He said the real danger was not far-right vigilantes, but attempts by a government to impose its race-centered view on society.
“Instead of removing the statues, we smear them, we repaint them to match something that is more in tune with the times,” said Mr. Salvador, an associate professor of modern literature at Université Sorbonne Paris Nord. “It’s a symbolic violence.”
Mr. Salvador said he believed that the mayor and restorer had been trying to impose a race-centered view on society perverting the country’s traditional universalist view where color and race are considered irrelevant, which he said both Mr. Sow and Hugo adhered to.
And the political storm had stopped them.
Unlike in the United States and other Western countries, statues in France were never toppled after George Floyd’s murder in 2020 in Minneapolis and the global Black Lives Matter protests that ensued. President Emmanuel Macron of France rejected the idea, stating instead that the country would “look at all of our history together with lucidity.”
However, many high-profile intellectuals, academics and members of Mr. Macron’s government have viscerally rejected the progressive systemic theories on race, gender and post-colonialism as American imports that undermine French society, which considers itself colorblind.