French authors of 'colonial Paris' guide hope to spark Rhodes Must Fall-style movement

While debate rages in the UK and across the English-speaking world about removing statues of Cecil Rhodes and General Lee and others deemed guilty of historic wrongs, in France there is barely a whimper.

A small band of militants, bent on highlighting their country’s colonial and slave-trading past, aims to change that.

Patrick Silberstein is one of them. The retired doctor, along with fellow activist Didier Epsztajn,  will next month publish their Guide to Colonial Paris.

It lists 200 streets named after far-flung places conquered by the French, or which honour men who helped build an empire that stretched from the Americas to the Far East, or who were linked to the slave trade which helped make France rich.

“We don’t want to rewrite history, but to present another version of history which is that of anti-colonialism, of decolonisation,” said Mr Silberstein.

View from the Arc de Triomphe on the Avenue Foch, Paris

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REX/Shutterstock

He was speaking to the Telegraph in a Paris café on Place Gambetta, a square named like countless other places across France after the revered 19th-century statesman Léon Gambetta, perhaps best known for a daring escape in a hot-air balloon as the Prussians laid siege to the French capital.

But Gambetta should also, argues Mr Silberstein, be remembered for being “a fervent supporter of colonial expansion, of the conquest of Algeria, the conquest of Indochina, of French expansion in Africa.”

He would settle for the square keeping its name but with a plaque being added to each streetname sign with a short account of Gambetta’s darker exploits.

One street that, for Mr Silberstein and fellow activists, must unequivocally be renamed is Avenue Bugeaud in the posh 16th arrondissement.

Thomas Robert Bugeaud was France’s first Governor-General of Algeria whose subjugation of the country in the 19th century was marked by “scorched earth” tactics of burning locals’ crops, demolishing their villages, and slaughtering those who resisted.

Thomas Robert Bugeaud (1784-1849)

Thomas Robert Bugeaud (1784-1849)

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ND/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

While Emmanuel Macron was campaigning for the presidential election earlier this year, he sparked controversy by saying, during a visit to Algeria, that France’s colonial rule was a “crime against humanity.”

Many critics point out that anyone using Bugeaud’s tactics in today’s world would likely face trial for crimes against humanity.

Yet his name still adorns a chic avenue in Paris.

The Elysée, Mr Macron’s office, said it was not immediately able to comment on whether the president was in favour of renaming certain streets in Paris or other cities which are currently honouring men with questionable achievements.

Street-naming is the responsibility of town halls in France. Paris city hall did not respond when asked if there were any plans to change names of certain streets in the capital.

The campaign to rename streets or remove statues in France is tiny in scale compared to similar movements in the US, where a woman died during protests in August in Charlottesville over plans to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

A car drives into a group of protesters demonstrating against a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in August 2017

A car drives into a group of protesters demonstrating against a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in August 2017

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Ryan M. Kelly/The Daily Progress via AP

Many Americans view the general as a symbol of racism and America’s slaveholding history.

In Britain the campaign to remove names of colonialists or slave trade sympathisers from public buildings and monuments included a high-profile bid to remove from Oxford University the statue of the Victorian imperialist Cecil Rhodes.

A minor campaign in France last summer – inspired by plans to remove statues of General Lee in some US towns – to have statues of Bugeaud removed from provincial French towns, soon fizzled out.

In cities like Bordeaux, Nantes, La Rochelle and Le Havre campaigners are also at work to have street names changed or amended if they honour men who engaged in the slave trade that once made these coastal towns rich.

Students march past Oxford University's Oriel College and the statue of Cecil Rhodes that they are campaigning to have removed in March 2016

Students march past Oxford University’s Oriel College and the statue of Cecil Rhodes that they are campaigning to have removed in March 2016

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Chris Ratcliffe/Getty Images

But the movement has failed to excite public opinion and remains largely below the media radar.

“France has a problem dealing with its history,” said Mr Silberstein.

But name-changing does occasionally take place.

In 2002, for example, the Rue Richepanse in Paris, named after a French general blamed for the deaths of thousands of rebellious blacks in Guadeloupe, became the Rue du Chevalier de Saint-George, after a native of the same French Caribbean island whose musical compositions led him to be known as the “black Mozart”.

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