The spirit of the Commune

The Sacré-Coeur is there for the duration. No one is proposing that it be demolished. The arguments championed by de Fleury have lost nearly all their force. Reactionaries in the Catholic hierarchy still try to wield power and influence, but their power to affect the lives of individuals is in steady retreat. The offence it may represent is no longer linked to a daily experience of oppression.

That is not the case if you are young, Black and find yourself with a police officer sizing you up for an unnecessary stop and search. Or if your name or clothing betrays Muslim origins and you are looking for a flat to rent or a job to secure. These injustices, deeply rooted in modern French life, remind their targets that the history represented by the statues of long-dead protagonists of slavery and colonialism still has its knee on their necks.

The latest statues to fall

The latest statues to fall were not in the metropolitan France, but in a former colony, now a department of France, the Caribbean island of Martinique. One that went toward the end of July was the statue of Pierre Belain d’Esnambuc, credited with being the “founder” of the French slave colony in 1635. Slavery there was finally abolished in 1848, but the statue of d’Esnambuc went up in 1935.

Another that went was of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Joséphine, his first Empress. She was born Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie in 1763 on the Martinique sugar plantation her family owned and which was then worked by over 200 slaves. You learn plenty about why it should long have been removed from the squeamish – no, mendacious – way in which AFP, France’s main news agency, reported that she was a “native of Martinique where her family possessed an agricultural exploitation”.

France has real difficulty in confronting its history of colonial slavery, robbery and pillage. President Macron declared on July 14: “The Republic will erase no name. It will topple no statue.” His view had been hinted at by Brigitte Macron who told us during a radio interview just beforehand: “We must not rewrite history as we are doing with the statues. It is very important not to renounce history, not to renounce our culture . . . I live resolutely in the present . . . The future can be troubling. But the future with Emmanuel is not.”

Anyone reading this sort of thing must surely find themselves asking a question or two. Who is doing the rewriting? Those getting rid of a statue of a human monster, guilty of crimes against humanity on a scale my imagination is not capable of conceiving, but whose statue praises him as a great French hero? Those who rub out the fact that Joséphine came from a slave plantation and who leave on one side the fact that the dictator she married restored slavery in France and its colonies and tried to re-impose it on Haiti at terrible human cost? And just what on earth does she mean by “our” culture?

All human societies exist, and have existed, in a state of diversity. On occasion that is a matter of personal choice or preference. More usually it is a matter of choices imposed, with varying degrees of cruelty, malice aforethought and self-interest on the many by the few. The statues are of the few, with rare exceptions.

Statues of the few

The latest 2020 version of the Guide du Patrimoine en France by the government’s Centre for National Monuments might be expected to help explain Brigitte Macron’s thought. As it has a link to Napoleon, the place where Joséphine was born, it is naturally now an important bit of that French history which must not be rewritten or renounced. “It resembles a little farm out in a Norman orchard with its dormer windows, its tiled roof and its solid stone walls,” is the description the guide gives of La Pagerie on page 909.

Not a word in the whole entry about why it was there, about what drove d’Esnambuc to plant the French king’s flag there and to bring African slaves by force to the island, not even the tiniest of nods in the direction of reminding us how those slaves at La Pagerie toiled, suffered and died to keep the inhabitants of this fake Normandy farmhouse in the comfort they considered was their birthright.

“Emmanuel” plays with French history as he plays with the forces he tries to manipulate for that future Brigitte is looking forward to sharing. He picks and chooses according to his political needs of the moment. He wants to keep the statue of Colbert, the administrator behind Louis XIV, the 17th Century Sun King, and whose name is associated with the Code Noir, the slavery code, that permitted Joséphine’s parents to brutalise the human beings on their “agricultural exploitation”. It suits his current turn toward to the right.

It has been the same this summer with his posturing over the Great War of 1914-1918 and the Second World War, conflicts that have left memorials in every commune across the land, memorials where some of the many get a walk-on role in the lists of names telling sometimes of all the men in a family consumed in the Flanders trenches.

One for which I have a particular liking is the war memorial in the village of Cotignac in the Var, a department on the Mediterranean shores of France.

It portrays a French poilu or ordinary infantry soldier in his greatcoat, his boots and puttees, with his rucksack, basin, water bottle, rifle and bayonet on his back, peering out from the trench in which he is standing. But underneath his helmet and behind his wide moustache, his look is one of trepidation, if not rank fear. Doubtless, exactly the look on the faces of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, dragged from all parts of the world, just before an officer’s shrill whistle ordered them over the top and to their deaths. That makes for a real memorial, a reminder of what it was like for human beings less fortunate than the rest of us. The model for the statue was a local man, a grandfather, who knew from personal experience what sacrifice and war meant.

The commune at Cotignac

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, like many towns and villages in what is now France, Cotignac gained a degree of control over its own affairs. A history of the commune published in 1860 (the only one I have been able to find) cites a 1521 contract between the seigneur who had inherited feudal rights over the village and “la communauté” represented by 172 heads of families. This largely finalised the hand over of local power to the commune’s municipal council. The oldest minutes of the council date from 1558. These say the meeting that year was held in the handsome masonry building that is to this day the village town hall.

One reason why the commune was able to assert its independence was the income from the Catholic pilgrims coming to visit a chapel on the spot where a local butcher had a vision of the Virgin Mary in 1519. Pilgrims still come to Cotignac to make the devotional walk up to the chapel, high on a promontory offering an uplifting panorama of la Provence verte.

One hundred and eighteen years later, in 1637, Louis XIV had not yet been conceived despite 23 years of trying by his parents, Louis XIII and Anne of Austria. This threatened a catastrophe for the ruling dynasty. Luckily the Virgin Mary appeared again. A Parisian monk saw her while he was praying and she said that there would be good news soon. As proof, she told him of a painting behind the altar in that chapel at Cotignac.

The court sent word down to the village. Was the painting really as it had appeared in the vision? It was! The Queen felt something move and the Sun King was on his way. When he was six, his mother sent the monk to the chapel to install another painting she had commissioned of Louis handing his crown to the Virgin Mary. In 1660, when he was 21, Louis decided it was time to go there in person.

There was panic in Cotignac when the commune heard he and his entourage had got to Aix-en-Provence. The minute of a meeting on 20 January reports that the council was told their treasury “n’a poinct d’argens” – they were skint. Confiscating grain from some farmers late with payments, they rustled up enough money to send a holding present of 30 capons, ten partridges and 24 sizeable boxes of prunes.

Then on 8 February they learned that the whole cavalcade of the court would be coming to the chapel – royal carriages, carts with all the necessary for a royal life, the same for accompanying aristocrats and courtiers, a detachment of musketeers and 40 gendarmes (yes, they were already on the scene). The commune had to repair the road from Brignoles, nearly 20 miles in all, so that this small army of privilege and power could get to the chapel, as the minutes record, “without being worn out or shaken up”. Those whose lot it was to do that sort of work got it finished in some ten days and the Sun King reached the chapel on 21 February.

All he left behind as thanks for their efforts was a blue ribbon that he put at the feet of a statue of the Virgin Mary. The commune spent months paying off the debt for the road, the feed for the horses, the food for the court, the courtiers and the military. Louis spent the rest of his life cementing in place an absolute monarchy bolstered by an absolutist Catholic faith.

Remembering the chapel forever linked with the miracle of his birth, Louis sent a copy of his marriage contract with the daughter of the Spanish king down to Cotignac along with the accompanying Treaty of the Pyrenees that ended a quarter of a century of warfare between the two crowns. The documents were magnificently bound in leather along with a portrait of Louis and the new queen.

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