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Should the « Colbert » schools and high schools be renamed?

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This controversy took place a week ago. Colbert was indeed Louis XIV’s minister, but he was also one of the main instigators of the Black Code which regulated slavery in the French colonies. For this reason, some associations deem it unacceptable for high schools to bear his name. Here are the opinions on the matter of two Sciences Po Paris students: Thibault Joannard-Lardant and Marie Hubert.

Don’t burry Colbert !

Thibault Joannard-lardant | translated by: Sélina Colin | 2017. October 05. 12:56

One week ago, Louis-Georges (director of the Representative Council of France’s Black Associations) suggested taking example from the United States’ ongoing campaign against figures of the confederate States of America. He suggested this way to remove Colbert’s statue located in front of the National Assembly and to rename the schools and high schools bearing his name. But acting as such would represent a major error of judgment.

Colbert was a minister under Louis XIV. He elaborated the first version of the Black Code which aimed to regulate slavery in the French colonies. Colbert also funded multiple trading companies which helped enslave colonized populations. It seems therefore logical to want to get rid of this oppressing name from the plaques of our schools and leave it to the past. And yet, acting as such would lead to committing a considerable mistake.

**Colbert’s life and life work

Let us first recall that Colbert (1619-1638), Comptroller-General of Finances under Louis XIV’s reign wasn’t solely a money-hungry slave driver: he was also a skilled manager, a competent minister and a key character in France’s economic development. Member of a family of minor nobility, Colbert gained social status to the point of becoming one of the Sun King’s main ministers. While exercising this function, Colbert re-organized the French forests to protect and exploit them better. This led to the establishment of an exemplary silvicultural policy and of an important French navy independent of foreign wood supplies. Colbert also developed royal factories such as “Saint-Gobain” (for the manufacturing of mirrors) and “Les Gobelins” (for the manufacturing of tapestries) which contributed considerably to the industrialization of the French economy. He initiated major infrastructure projects such as the paving and lighting of Paris or such as the creation of the “Canal du Midi” that links the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean through Toulouse and which is one of the century’s largest construction works. Colbert was also a protector of the Arts and Sciences since he created the Academy of Sciences (1666), the Paris Observatory (1667) or the Royal Academy of Architecture (1671). Lastly, although he encouraged slavery through the creation of trading companies and of the Black Code, let us recall that before Colbert there was no existing legislation regulating the treatment of slaves which allowed therefore the slave masters to act as they wished. We can give this compilation of texts constituting the Black Code at least the merit of legislating on this matter and regulating it (even though it did it in a horrible and brutal way).

**The error of judgment

If we would rename the streets and schools bearing Colbert’s name because of his actions, we would quickly have to rename all the streets and schools in France. What would we do indeed with Louis XIV who was Colbert’s king and who contributed considerably to the expansion of the French colonies? Should we also forget that Voltaire himself was never very clear regarding the matter of slavery? What would we also do with Jules Ferry who drove the colonization? No great figure is flawless if we look at them from our modernity. Therefore, where would this phenomenon end? It would end only when the French history would be pilloried and burned at the stake. It appears indeed, as Gérard Bronner (sociologist) put it, “that constraining the memory of the past by the norms of the present is a process leading not only to a simplistic picture of the complexity of our common history but is also a process that will end hardly”.

 

Let’s not rename our streets and schools, let’s not burn down our history. Let’s simply make sure that we don’t forget to mention our national political figures’ good and bad sides when we tell our country’s history and let’s recall that our values, as grand as they may be, didn’t seem so natural a few centuries ago.

 

Colbert : a republican contradiction ?

Marie Hubert | translated by: Sélina Colin | 2017. October 10. 17:30

Jean Baptiste Colbert was of one Louis XIV’s main ministers. He is known to have been the driver of an interventionist and mercantilist economic policy. Does his name deserve to be on the plaques of numerous French middle schools and high schools?

Leaving Colbert’s name on high school plaques means guaranteeing the preservation of his memory for more years from now on, which is regrettable.

**An instigator of the Black Code of slavery

Although Colbert was a very devoted minister to the Crown and had a developed sense of affairs, he still indirectly took part in the evolution of slavery in the Antilles. Colbert has been indeed one of the originators of the Black Code (a king’s edict regarding slavery) which contributed to the development of slavery in the world, including in the Antilles. This Black code not only normalized slavery: it has also authorized slave masters to mutilate or even kill their slaves. Acknowledging these facts, it is therefore hard to accept the association of Colbert’s name with the republican values of “Liberty, equality, fraternity”.

**A lack of coherence for the Republic

Keeping Colbert’s name (Louis XIV’s prime minister) isn’t very coherent with republicanism. How to articulate the foundation of the republican project with the republican education if public high schools, which are secondary education institutions, bear the name of a political man of the Ancien Régime? This question is essential to the French who are truly attached to the values of the Republic as it can be seen through Najat Vallaud-Belkacem’s (minister of national education) declarations: “All of this ministry’s competences and commitment are mobilized so that the spirit of the 11th of January - this deep attachment to the republican values and citizenship which constitutes the core of the republican School - affirms itself at School”.
Let’s also recall that Louis XIV was not just an ordinary king: he is the purest incarnation of absolutism since, according to historians, it was during his reign that absolutism started emerging. Louis XIV invented therefore the absolute monarchy of Divine Right.
For its part, the French Republic was established in opposition to absolutism and continues to do so. It was indeed founded on completely different bases than absolutism such as: the principle of the separation of powers, the direct universal suffrage, the referendum and many other democratic advances. Recalling Colbert’s memory means remembering the image of a political man belonging to a regime totally opposed to the Republican one. But most importantly, recalling his memory means denying the heritage of the rights and duties acquired since the 1789 Revolution!

**More plausible candidates 

What Colbert is most renowned for is in fact the invention of mercantilism, or “colbertism”, in other words, the principle according to which it is necessary to spend more than what we buy. It is indeed a great discovery and a breakthrough for the State treasury. However, Colbert doesn’t seem to really qualify for appearing on high schools’ plaques. What would he deserve it? Why him rather than someone else? Why not, for a change, a woman’s name? The only feminine names being displayed on high school plaques are those of Marie Curie and Simone Veil. Where are for instance the Louise Labé and Olympe de Gouges – names that would deserve being remembered far more than Colbert’s - high schools? The list of more plausible candidates is far from being short. We could go even further and, in a logic of Europeanisation, think of all the names that would affirm our European commitment such as “Europe” (this Phoenician princess who was abducted by Jupiter and who gave our continent its name). Alternatives are numerous.

 

We need indeed to own up to our past, but not like this. While we shouldn’t conceal the memory of men from our history that shame us, we shouldn’t either display their names everywhere. Removing their names from our high school’s plaques wouldn’t be a sign of weakness nor a sign of our incapacity to deal with our past: no, it would be on the contrary a first step in showing what we stand for today and in re-affirming France’s never-ending commitment for its values and its ideals of justice and freedom. Renaming France’s high school is acknowledging the importance of memory and symbols.

This article convinced me.

This article deliberately presents only one of the many existing points of views of this contorversial subject. Its content is not necessarily representative of its author's personal opinion. Please have a look at Duel Amical's philosophy.

This article convinced me.

This article deliberately presents only one of the many existing points of views of this contorversial subject. Its content is not necessarily representative of its author's personal opinion. Please have a look at Duel Amical's philosophy.

The state of votes

66%
34%

Don’t burry Colbert !

Thibault Joannard-lardant|translated by: Sélina Colin

Colbert : a republican contradiction ?

Marie Hubert| translated by: Sélina Colin

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