The lower part of the steel sculpture in the town of Amboise, where Emir Abdelkader was imprisoned from 1848 to 1852, was badly damaged in the attack which comes in the midst of an election campaign dominated by harsh rhetoric on immigration and Islam.
Amboise mayor Thierry Boutard said he was “ashamed” of those responsible and decided to proceed with the inauguration ceremony regardless.
“I was ashamed that someone would treat an artwork and an artist in this way,” he told AFP.
“My second sentiment is of course one of indignation. This is a day of harmony and unity and this kind of behaviour is unspeakable,” he said.
The sculpture was commissioned to coincide with the 60th anniversary of Algeria’s independence from France, won after a brutal eight-year liberation war that continues to poison relations between the two countries.
It was proposed by historian Benjamin Stora, who was tasked by President Emmanuel Macron with coming up with ways to heal the memories of the war and 132 years of French rule in Algeria.
The silhouette of the Islamic-scholar-turned-militar
Amboise police said they were investigating the incident, which comes two months ahead of a presidential election in which an upstart far-right candidate, Eric Zemmour, has repeatedly grabbed headlines with a campaign bashing Islam and immigration from Africa, including Algeria.
Algeria’s ambassador to France Mohamed Antar Daoud, who attended the inauguration, condemned the attack as an act of “unspeakable baseness”.
“We have to get beyond that,” he said, assuring that attempts to mend fences between France and Algeria would continue because “there is momentum and a desire on both sides to move forward.”
Ouassila Soum, a 37-year-old French woman of Algerian background who attended the inauguration, said the vandalism left her “with a knot in my stomach.”
“It’s a shame and yet it’s not surprising with the rhetoric of hate and the nauseating current atmosphere,” said Soum, hailing the sculpture as “a symbol of the reconciliation between peoples and civilisations.”
Dubbed “France’s worst enemy” in the late 19th century, Emir Abdelkader is considered one of the founders of modern-day Algeria for his role in mobilising resistance to French rule.
The rebellion he led failed however and he surrendered to French forces who shipped him to France, where he and his family spent four years under guard in Amboise castle.
He later moved to Syria where he won international acclaim for defending Christians during sectarian attacks.
He was awarded the Legion of Honour, France’s highest award for his role in trying to end the persecution.
Stora, the historian behind the idea of the sculpture of Abdelkader, slammed the “ignorance” of those who vandalised it.
“Emir Abdelkader had several lives. He fought France but he was also a friend of France. Those who committed this act know nothing about French history,” he told AFP.