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Paris plans first statue of black woman for anti-slavery heroine

Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo said Saturday the French capital plans its first statue of a black woman to remember a heroine who fought against slavery on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe in the early 19th century.

Paris plans first statue of black woman for anti-slavery heroine
Photo: AFP/Wikipedia

The woman, Solitude, was a key figure in the resistance movement against slavery in Guadeloupe and was executed for her role aged just 30.

Hidalgo said the new statue was planned as she opened a park in Paris named after Solitude, who she said “with her courage and commitment to justice and dignity opened the way towards a definitive abolition of slavery in France”.

“Paris is honouring Solitude, a Guadeloupean figure in the resistance against slavery by dedicating a park to her,” added Hidalgo on Twitter.

“Soon, a statue of this heroine — the very first of a black woman in Paris — will be erected there (in the park). A strong symbol to never forget her fight,” she added.

Slavery was abolished in France in 1794 but under orders from Napoleon Bonaparte troops were sent to Guadeloupe in 1802 to restore the practice there.

The move sparked an insurgency, with many black women who were former slaves rising up. Solitude was arrested and hanged on November 29, 1802, an execution that was held back so she could give birth just one day before.

She was the daughter of a black slave and a white French sailor, who according to some accounts had raped her mother.

“Solitude is the first black woman honoured for herself and for her action in a Paris public space,” Jacques Martial, deputy mayor of Paris in charge of overseas territories issues, told AFP.

“A defender of the values of the Republic, a committed woman, she fought for the freedom of all, against the reestablishment of slavery in Guadeloupe. She paid for that fight with her life”, he added.

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

Anti-racism activists in July tore down a statue of Napoleon's empress Josephine in the overseas French territory of Martinique.

There have also been calls for the removal of the statue outside France's National Assembly in Paris of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the man behind the “Code Noir” decree that defined the conditions of slavery in the French colonies.

But President Emmanuel Macron warned in June that France would not take down statues or names of controversial figures, saying it would “lucidly look at our history and our memory together.”

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HISTORY

‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.

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