Campaign Demands Removal of Racist Mural in France

When Mame-Fatou Niang came across a racist mural depicting two Africans with exaggerated features on the walls that house the French National Assembly, she said she was “shocked.” The series of frescos were commissioned by the French government in 1991 from French painter Hervé Di Rosa to commemorate the first time France abolished slavery in 1794.

Niang, an associate professor of French and Francophone Studies at Carnegie Mellon University, and French novelist Julien Suaudeau sprang to action. They launched a petition to have the painting removed from the Palais Bourbon, where the French National Assembly sits. “Unless you’re blind, it’s impossible to not see the symbolism,” Niang told The North Star.

The French academics called Di Rosa’s depiction of enslaved people “a humiliating and dehumanizing insult to the millions of victims of slavery and to all their descendants” in the now-viral petition. The duo hopes that their petition will motivate the French government to remove the painting, but not destroy it.

She told The North Star that the petition is meant to open a conversation about racism in France.

“We need to define what racism is in France,” Niang said, noting that racism is often equated to the American experience. “Racism is in all the structures of the day-to-day.”

Niang never called Di Rosa a racist — and launched the petition with her white, male colleague — though detractors have tried to turn the tables by insisting that she is the racist. Since launching the petition, Niang said she has received more than 1,000 hate tweets; the novelist Suaudeau has received two.

Critics believe Niang is “importing racism” from the US and that “racism doesn’t exist in France.” She argued that slavery is part of France’s history and not exclusive to Black French people. “People are saying you should be happy that France is recognizing this important date,” she said of France’s first abolition of slavery (Napoleon reestablished slavery in 1802, and it was banned for the second time in 1848).

Members of the French media have also criticized Niang for pointing out the racism of Di Rosa’s painting. In an op-ed for Le Figaro, Gilles William Goldnadel defended the painter and claimed it was his “style” to paint humans with exaggerated traits “regardless of their skin color.”

Goldnadel also criticized the National Assembly for removing a photo of the painting from its website after Niang’s tweet. The National Assembly has done little more than scrub its website of the racist imagery.

Di Rosa pushed back against “censors” in an interview with Le Monde. “Whatever their color, sex or physical characteristics, my characters have big red lips,” the painter said. The newspaper also claimed Di Rosa’s painting depicted two enslaved people “breaking free from their chains.” “I do NOT see two slaves, I see two offensive racial caricatures,” Niang wrote on Twitter. .

Niang told The North Star that the fact that Di Rosa was chosen to paint a commemorative mural on the abolition of slavery, given his artistic style, is itself problematic. “His style makes him wrong for this job,” she said, adding that Di Rosa should have had the common sense to tell the National Assembly he was not the artist for the job.

The two academics hope that the petition will lead to the removal of Di Rosa’s painting from the National Assembly. They hope the mural will be sent to a museum, where future generations can learn about the harmful depictions of enslaved people. “We have a belief that the National Assembly should resemble the people,” Niang told The North Star. “We don’t want [the painting] censored. It has to be kept as a testimony at a museum."

“This is beyond Black people in France. This is beyond people in France,” Niang added. “This is world history.”

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.