Victor Hugo Statue Takes a Prominent Place in France’s Debate on Race

BESANÇON, France — 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.

Besançon, on France’s border with Switzerland, is where the 19th-century writer was born.Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

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.

“Just how far will #wokisme and stupidity go?” Max Brisson, a senator with the center-right party, Les Républicains, wrote on Twitter.

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.”

Headlines in the newspaper L’Est Républicain after statues by Mr. Sow were defaced.Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

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 Colonialism 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.”

“Man and Child,” the other sculpture by Mr. Sow in Besançon that was defaced.Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

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.

“We are in denial of our colonial history,” said Fabrice Riceputi, a historian in Besançon who specializes on the country’s troubled colonial history in Algeria, which ended 60 years ago after a brutal war of independence that left 500,000 dead by French estimates, and 1.5 million by Algerian ones.

“We are in denial of our colonial history,” said Fabrice Riceputi, a historian, at his office in Besançon.Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

“Calling someone woke is a way of outright disqualifying all critical looks at history, all anti-racist actions, and it can degenerate into a witch hunt,” he added. “And it legitimizes little minds, like the ones who did this in Besançon, whose actions can be violent.”

Many were baffled at how the debate had come to Hugo’s birthplace, and had targeted this statue in particular.

There are few writers as celebrated as Hugo in France. The 19th-century author of “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” and “Les Misérables” was born in this city close to the Swiss border. He stayed for only six weeks before his father’s military regiment was moved and never returned. Still, Besançon has capitalized on those precious six weeks, naming Victor Hugo schools, a Victor Hugo square, erecting many Victor Hugo busts and statues, and opening a Victor Hugo museum in the stone townhouse where he was born.

There, Hugo is celebrated as a human rights crusader, who was exiled from the country for 19 years during the reign of Napoleon III, and who fought for freedom, liberty and the rights of people who were often excluded at the time, including slaves, prisoners, women and children.

Hugo’s birthplace and museum on Grande Rue in Besançon.Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

“This political storm was the opposite of the Victor Hugo we show here,” said Lise Lézennec, the cultural and scientific manager at the museum. “If the definition of being woke is awaken to discrimination, and combating against it, then we can say he was woke.”

What Mr. Sow would make of the debate encircling his work is another question.

He was never a French citizen, but he became the first African to be named to France’s prestigious Academy of Fine Arts. Long before that, he grew up in a working-class neighborhood of Dakar, when Senegal was still a French colony. When Mr. Sow first arrived in Paris in his early 20s, he had no money and was offered places to sleep in police stations and breakfast by bakers.

“He knew a France that was a land of welcome. He passionately loved France,” Ms. Soulé said from Dakar, where she has established a museum dedicated to his work. The fight over his sculpture “would have bothered him,” she added, “but he would have moved onto other things.”

Mr. Sow, the Senegalese artist, who died in 2016, was the first Black man to be named to France’s prestigious Academy of Fine Arts.Credit…Xavier Leoty/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The process of adding color to bronze requires heating the metal with a blowtorch while painting on pigmented copper nitrate solution over many stages, explained Carlos Alves Ferreira, a bronze patina and restoration expert who carried out the restoration. It is finicky, and usually done in the privacy of an atelier.

Mr. Ferreira said he had sent Ms. Soulé photographs of his initial work by email and had been waiting for her approval when the political storm erupted. So he went back to do it again.

“I worked with Ousmane Sow for 20 years. Colors were part of his identity,” said Mr. Ferreira. “I didn’t want to betray him.”

A week later, another Hugo statue that Mr. Ferreira had worked on was delivered to the city’s Museum of Fine Arts and Archaeology. This one featured the town hero completely nude, cast entirely in a traditional black bronze. It was done by the French sculptor Auguste Rodin. There was no uproar.

A nude of Hugo by Auguste Rodin at the Besançon Museum of Fine Arts and Archaeology.Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

“They didn’t attack Rodin, a white French sculptor,” Mr. Ferreira said. “He could make Victor Hugo completely nude. But a Senegalese sculptor, who made Victor Hugo look human, they think it’s not a sculpture.”

The perpetrators who vandalized Mr. Sow’s Hugo statue were arrested. The two young men — students at the local university — were leaders of the far-right student group Cocarde Étudiante, said the Besançon prosecutor Étienne Manteaux. They face charges for vandalizing public property with racist motivations. While they have admitted to the vandalism, they do not believe what they did was a racist act. “It will be up to the court of Besançon to decide,” Mr. Manteaux said.

No one has been arrested for vandalizing the second statue by Mr. Sow.

After the arrests, few of the people who had originally commented about the restoration denounced the racism on social media.

“Let me say now, it’s horrible. It’s eminently condemnable,” Mr. Salvador said in an interview, adding that the men should go to prison.

Mr. Sow’s statue of Hugo after its final restoration.Credit…Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times

On a recent sunny afternoon, many people stopped on the Esplanade of Human Rights to admire Hugo in his latest form, and to take photographs before it.

After Mr. Ferreira returned again, his face was a shade lighter, looking down at his pocket watch, as time was passing.

At his feet is engraved a line from one of his famous letters. “I condemn slavery,” it begins, “I chase away extreme poverty. I teach ignorance, I treat sickness. I illuminate the night.”

It ends with, “I hate hate.”

Tom Nouvian contributed research.

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