History, Modern Languages, postcolonial studies

As statues fall: rethinking the blindspots of French national memory

By Etienne Achille, Charles Forsdick and Lydie Moudileno

Pierre Nora’s collective volume Les Lieux de mémoire (1984-1992) has been widely recognized as one of the most important historiographical interventions of the late 20th century. Emerging initially from a context dominated by debates around how to commemorate the bicentenary of the French Revolution in 1989, the term ‘site’ or ‘realm’ of memory is now widely used in academic research, but has also became an established term in more general discussions of contemporary remembrance. Nora’s elaboration of this new paradigm has allowed historians and researchers across the humanities and social sciences to rethink the relationship between nation, territory, history and memory: the concept of ‘realm of memory’ is now an indispensable critical tool that has acquired genuine cross-disciplinary reach. However, the study has also been criticized for its blind spots, most notably the blatant absence of references to the colonial past in a project aiming nevertheless at questioning the traditional narrative of the nation and the ways in which collective memory is constructed and mobilized. Indeed, amongst the 132 articles contained in the seven volumes, only one deals (indirectly) with colonization and the empire: Charles-Robert Ageron’s entry on the 1931 Colonial Exhibition, which can be found in the very first volume, ‘La République’. Besides this contribution, and with the exception of some traces to be found in a few others, the exploration of collective memory is anchored in a narrow understanding of French territory and history that excludes its (post)colonial dimensions. Even though the objective is to conceptualize the modalities of a ‘new history’ imagined as a response to the disintegration of History as a unifying myth, Nora’s repertoire reveals an overtly nationalist methodology exalting a monolithic and nostalgic idea of the French nation and of French culture.

As has been noted, the blind spots in Nora’s Lieux de mémoire are symptomatic of a certain unwillingness, or incapacity, to think through the inherent imbrication of the colonial in the national narrative as well as in the various domains of the French everyday. Rather than simply pointing out these shortcomings once again, our aim is to reaffirm the relevance of the colonial in the construction of modern and contemporary France, that is, to highlight France’s intrinsic postcoloniality. Our volume seeks to systematically address the gaps that others have identified by discerning and then exploring an initial repertoire of realms around which traces of colonial memory cohere. Though the exploration of traces of empire disseminated throughout the larger Republican territory (the Hexagon and overseas territories), our book Postcolonial Realms of Memory re-inscribes colonial memory in a dialectical relationship with an established and officially endorsed national memory.


This volume thus revisits the problematic of the ‘lieu’ in order to articulate new readings of signs and sites emblematic of French culture – of its past, its territorial locations and its status in the contemporary moment.  We are living in a moment when statues of historical figures linked to slavery and colonialism are being toppled in protest against the glorification of the world order and hierarchies they embody, against the unfinished afterlives of empire they signify to all in the urban landscape.

In addition to our introduction to the volume, the following chapters, now available to read freely, will help to contextualize these current events and read them productively. These entries engage directly with the question of colonial memory as it is represented through statues and memorials. They unpack the ideological implications of their deployment and subsequent fate in a variety of contexts, and they decipher their meanings as they relate to different aspects of colonization, notably slavery and the construction of ‘Greater France’. We share these contributions as they probe the function of statues in the cultural landscape, and interrogate the place occupied in the collective memory by the events to which they refer. In the present context, they offer an insightful take on the meanings of current attempts to reappropriate and decolonize public space.

Read the Introduction for this book and selected chapters on the Liverpool University Press website

Etienne Achille is an Assistant Professor of French and Francophone Studies at Villanova University.

Charles Forsdick is James Barrow Professor of French at the University of Liverpool.

Lydie Moudileno is Marion Frances Chevalier Professor of French and Professor of French and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California.

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