Anti-racism activists tear down statue of wife of French emperor Napoleon

Anti-racism activists tore down a statue of Napoleon's empress Josephine and another colonialist figure in the overseas French territory of Martinique, the latest test of President Emmanuel Macron's vow not to erase controversial monuments.

Anti-racism activists tear down statue of wife of French emperor Napoleon
Photo: AFP

A statue of Josephine de Beauharnais, who was born to a wealthy colonial family on the island and later became Napoleon's first wife and empress, was attacked by a crowd of people wielding clubs and ropes, according to an AFP journalist in Fort-de-France on Sunday.

The emperor reintroduced slavery in French colonies in 1802, eight years after it had been banned under the French Revolution.

Josephine's statue had already been decapitated nearly 30 years ago, and never been repaired since.

A short distance away, the activists also destroyed a statue of Pierre Belain d'Esnambuc, the trader who established the first French colony on Martinique in 1635.

The emperor's wife Jospehine was born on the Caribbean island of Martinique. Photo: AFP 

In a video posted to social media last week, activists warned the statues would be targeted unless officials had them removed by Sunday.

A police source said the government's top official for the Caribbean island ordered law enforcement not to intervene, though he denounced in a statement “unacceptable actions by a violent minority.”

The debate on France's colonial past has been revived in part by fresh protests against racism and police brutality in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement that has rocked the United States.

On May 22, the anniversary of the abolition of slavery on Martinique, activists toppled two statues erected in honour of Victor Schoelcher, the lawmaker whose decree outlawed slavery across France in 1848.

Another bust of Schoelcher, on the nearby French territory of Guadaloupe, was sawed off and stolen last week, local media reported Saturday. It was later found alongside a road some 40 kilometres away.

Critics say that instead of playing up the role of whites, France should honour the black figures who braved prison or worse in their push for emancipation.

But Macron warned in June that France would not take down statues or names of controversial figures, while denying that he was attempting to deny either racism or the country's colonial past.

“The Republic will not wipe away any trace or any name from its history… but lucidly look at our history and our memory together,” he said in a televised address.

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‘I’ve lost my eyebrows – but not my political ambition’, says France’s ex PM

France's former prime minister Edouard Philippe, a leading contender to succeed President Emmanuel Macron in 2027 elections, has opened up about a hair loss condition he says will not diminish his political ambition.

'I've lost my eyebrows - but not my political ambition', says France's ex PM

The 52-year-old politician, who spearheaded the government’s fight against the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, was a familiar face on television with his trademark brown beard.

Since leaving the post in the summer of 2020 and working as mayor of the Normandy port of Le Havre, his appearance has drastically changed with his hair and beard thinning and turning white suddenly.

“This is what had happened to me: I lost my eyebrows, and I don’t think they will come back,” he told BFMTV in an interview late Thursday.

“My beard has turned white, it’s falling out a bit and the hair too.

“The moustache is gone, I don’t know if it will come back, but I would be surprised,” he said.

“I have what is called alopecia,” he added, opening up about the auto-immune condition that accelerates hair loss.

He said the condition was “not painful, dangerous, contagious or serious”.

Philippe’s wry and avuncular style proved popular with many French and some speculated that his high approval ratings had caused tensions with Macron, with replaced him as Prime Minister in the summer of 2020.

Philippe now regularly tops polls of France’s most-loved and most-trusted politicians. 

He has now founded a new centrist party called Horizons that is allied with Macron’s ruling faction but also unafraid of showing an independent streak.

Some analysts see Philippe as an obvious potential successor to Macron, who must leave office after serving the maximum two terms in 2027.

And Philippe insisted that his condition would not stand in the way of his political plans.

“That doesn’t stop me from being extremely ambitious for my city,” he said referring to Le Havre.

Tellingly, he added: “It doesn’t stop me from being extremely ambitious for my country.”

With France buffeted by strikes and protests as the government seeks to push through landmark pension reform, Philippe gave his full backing to Macron for the changes.

He said he supported the changes “without ambiguity, without any bad note or any other kind of little complication”.