France's new president - 
Article published the Tuesday 15 May 2012 - Latest update : Wednesday 16 May 2012

Hollande faces first controversy over tribute to 'racist' Jules Ferry

President Francois Hollande (C) and Valerie Trierweiler attend a ceremony to the 19th century education reformer Jules Ferry
Reuters/Joel Saget

By Tony Cross

France’s new President François Hollande started his term in office with a homage to Jules Ferry, the 19th-century politician seen as the father of the modern French education system. But Ferry was also an apologist for colonialism for racist reasons and that has aroused criticism.

Speaking at the foot of Ferry’s statue in Paris’s Tuileries Gardens on Tuesday, Hollande praised Ferry for laying the base of France’s free, secular and compulsory education system.

After promising to create thousands of jobs in education, Hollande chose the former education minister as a symbol of his confidence that the schools system can play a key role in the future of the nation.

But Côte d’Ivoire’s Fraternité-Matin didn’t see it that way.

“What a cold shower for those Africans – and there are many of them – who applauded the Socialist François Hollande’s victory in the 6 May French presidential election,” the state-run paper commented.

Ferry was a “fierce partisan of French colonial expansion, who developed the idea of a hierarchy of the races’, it pointed out.

Despite, or because of, his strong republican convictions, Ferry was indeed an ardent colonialist.

He established a French protectorate in Tunisia and launched the invasion of Annam, which was to become Vietnam, and Madagascar. He also pushed for further colonial expansion in sub-Saharan Africa.

Madagascar last month marked the 65th anniversary of a revolt against French rule that was put down with great brutality but is still little-known in France.

In a speech in 1885 Ferry justified colonialism with the claim that “superior races have rights in relation to inferior races”, adding that they had “a duty to civilise inferior races”.

Jules Ferry
Jules Ferry

The speech, which was bitterly criticised by Radical MP and future prime minister Georges Clémenceau, established the theme of France’s “civilising mission’, which would serve as the ideology of French colonialism until the end of the Algerian war of independence.

In his speech in the Tuileries, Hollande acknowledged the criticism, which was echoed by French politicians including the left-wing MP for French Guyana, Christiane Taubira, commenting that “all greatness has its weaknesses”.

“His defence of colonisation was a moral and political failure and should be condemned,” the new president said before passing to the positive aspect of Ferry’s legacy - education.

Hollande went on to place a wreath in front of a statue to Marie Curie, who won Nobel prizes for both physics and chemistry and was an immigrant from Poland.

tags: Colonialism - Education - France - French presidential election 2012 - Georges Clemenceau - Jules Ferry - Paris - Racism
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