Politics

What France Knows About Robert E. Lee

The battle over national monuments looks familiar in certain parts of Paris.

Napoleon: Down, but not out.

Photographer: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Symbolic struggles over the Confederacy are uniquely American. But fierce battles over public spaces and monuments, and the values they elevate and enshrine, are not.

"The French have their own versions of these battles," said Peter Brooks, a professor of literature who has taught at Yale and Princeton. In such battles for cultural and political supremacy, history is a weapon. And in France, there is plenty of history to fight over.

Like the American chasm opened between the Confederacy and the egalitarianism that rejects caste (and, later, the nostalgia for it), the French schism between royalists and republicans, opened by the French Revolution in 1789, remained a gaping wound for generations.

"The basic battle line is the line drawn by the Revolution: the monarchists and the revolutionists," Brooks said in an interview.

In his history, "Flaubert in the Ruins of Paris," Brooks shows Gustave Flaubert grappling, often in letters to his friend George Sand, with the political and cultural contours of that wound during the Paris Commune, the revolutionary rupture of 1870-1871.

The communards, under siege from both Prussian invaders and a French counterrevolution, were the descendants of the 1789 revolution, striving for an egalitarian, working-class dream. Though hungry, overmatched and exhausted, they nonetheless devoted obsessive energy to redefining public space.

Paris is filled with such spaces, some politically juxtaposed. The Place de la Bastille, the site of the jail that was stormed in July 1789, is a site of socialist triumph. The Arc de Triomphe, designed in the early 1800s to honor imperial conquest, strikes a different chord, and stirs different hearts.

"The French really understand the degree to which their particular history has been organized around these particular sites," said Caroline Weber, a French professor at Barnard College.

In his book, Brooks discusses the significance of the Place Vendome, with its column topped by a gilded statue of Napoleon as a Roman emperor. "The one action of the Commune given an intense historical record," Brooks wrote in his book, "was the felling of the column of the Place Vendome." The monument was a favorite of those who viewed Napoleon as the embodiment of French power and glory.

The communards, who carried the Bastille in their political hearts, heaped a long list of epithets on the column, describing it as "a monument to barbarism, a symbol of brute force and false glory." When they succeeded in pulling it down, however, Flaubert feared it was such an egregious act of cultural warfare that it was bound to produce a vicious reaction from the right.

Montmartre, the "mount of martyrs" on the right bank of the Seine, was a site similarly loaded with history and emotion. The hill formed the commanding height from which the Commune's cannons defended Paris. Brooks wrote:

These were the cannon largely bought by public subscription, in an appeal sponsored by Victor Hugo, that held a special place in the hearts of Parisians. They belonged to the people, they were its symbolic last defense. Montmartre was the bastion. It was here that the people of Paris stood their ground when their government tried to disarm them . . . .

Long before the Commune, even before the 1789 revolution, Montmartre had been the site of an abbey. In 1792, the abbey was razed by anti-clerical revolutionaries. When the Commune was routed in 1871, religious conservatives were determined to reclaim the space. 

The secular cannon park was supplanted by the grand Basilica of Sacre-Coeur, visible from much of Paris. "The builders of Sacre-Coeur saw it as expiation for the sins of Republican France," Brooks wrote.

The basilica was a spiritual construct, but it was also an act of politics -- payback as well as preventive occupation. There would be no more citizen cannons blasting atop Montmartre.

The Place Vendome underwent a similar reclamation. Once the Commune was crushed, conservatives mounted a new column on the same site, showing which side of the political divide ruled history, and thus France.

The French call these public spaces, rich with meaning, lieux de memoire, "sites of memory." Memory, of course, is notoriously fickle, and highly selective. Robert E. Lee was a wonderful gentleman, leaving aside the treason and the slavery and the piles of corpses produced by a war he waged for those ignoble ends.

Mounting Lee on a horse, on a plinth, in a park, was never really an act of memory. Like placing a gilded emperor atop a column at the Place Vendome, it was an act of politics. Pulling Lee down is also a political act. It tells us very little about history. But it says a lot about who exercises power over it, which is another way of saying who has power in the present.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

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