When a statue of François-Marie Arouet was dramatically removed from outside the Académie Française in Paris this month, it was by no means only members of the far-right who expressed their outrage.
On the contrary, self-styled moderates of all political persuasions said the prolific 18th-century writer best known by his nom de plume, Voltaire, should be untouchable. They were incensed when anti-racist graffiti kept being sprayed on the stone depiction because of his links with the slave trade.
In turn, the accusations from those responsible for the vandalism were that Voltaire had personally invested in the French East India Company, founded in 1664 to exploit the products of the New World, including Africans bought and sold as commodities for profit.
Voltaire had plenty of enemies, and there were certainly as many rumors as forged documents connecting him with the slave trade. However, he liked to define himself as a "merchant philosopher" and indisputably funded the French East India Company in the 1740s, when its armed frigates were focused on triangular trade voyages to Africa.
Beyond owning corporate shares, Voltaire is recorded as having directly put his own money into slave transportation adventures by ships such as Le Saint-Georges, which left Cádiz, Spain, in December 1751 bound for Guinea.
More than 250 years on, anger among those in Paris who dismiss such evidence as unimportant intensified when workers transported the stone Voltaire to a distant warehouse. The official explanation was that he needed a good clean, but conspiracy theorists still fear he might never return. They accuse the authorities of bowing to Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists and the so-called cancel culture that they propagate.
BLM is already a hugely influential movement in France. It was galvanized by the killing of Black American George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, but there have been plenty of parallel cases of ethnic minority Frenchmen dying in police custody.
These include Adama Traoré, who died on his 24th birthday in a cell in the Paris suburb of Beaumont-sur-Oise in July 2016. There is no film of what happened, but family and other supporters say Traoré—like Floyd—was suffocated after being pinned down by three officers.
There have been regular BLM rallies in France—one on June 2 led to an estimated 23,000 people turning up at the Paris court complex. Police used tear gas and baton charges to try to disperse the illegal gathering. The slogans "Justice pour Adama" and "Black Lives Matter" were chanted throughout.
Beyond street protests, the questioning of celebrated public figures—living or dead—because they are considered deeply objectionable is becoming an increasingly powerful force in France.
Screenings of J'accuse (An Officer and a Spy), the latest movie by Roman Polanski, the French director who has been on the run from U.S. justice for decades over the rape of a child, have been closed down by feminist groups, for example. This followed new allegations of sexual assaults being carried out by Polanski, who denied the claims.
The spraying of red paint—to symbolize blood—on historic monuments is all part of the same culture. Beyond Voltaire, statues of various officials and generals have been vandalized. A bronze depiction of Hubert Lyautey, the late colonial administrator dubbed the "Empire Builder," was defiled in Paris on the same day as Voltaire's stone image.
Voltaire, who was 83 when he died in 1778, was a man of his time, say his apologists. So what if he invested in a company involved in transporting enslaved humans to plantations? France was entitled to compete with other imperial powers and especially Britain. If this meant the brightest and the best having to dabble in an economic system that included a colonial slave sector, so be it, unyielding Voltaire defenders would argue.
According to sacred myths, the only Voltaire theories that are important to humanity are those that informed the Enlightenment—the period of history that elevated science and reason above the superstition and obscurantism of religion and royalty. Individual freedom is the cornerstone of secular France, and names such as Voltaire are now shorthand for rational and liberal thought.
To far too many armchair supporters, Voltaire is thus just like those sitting inside the Académie Française, the august institution made up of immortals (yes, that is the word they use) who rule on matters pertaining to the French language; he is a reassuring establishment intellectual whom people might not know much about, except that he is never meant to be questioned.
This is a cynical and lazy position—the kind that should shame a modern republic that tries to live up to the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity.
The truth is that Voltaire remains a poster boy for the dangerously ill-educated and intellectually dishonest hypocrites—those who are highly selective in their approach to his work, either because they have not studied it at all or because they deliberately cherry-pick certain elements.
This is not unusual among those who put men like Thomas Jefferson and Winston Churchill on a pedestal while glossing over darker facts about their lives. Jefferson, the third president of the United States, owned hundreds of slaves thanks to inheriting plantations in Virginia from his father. Emancipation became important to Jefferson in later life, but—like Voltaire—financial considerations often took precedence over common decency, meaning he kept hold of his human assets.
Churchill, Britain's wartime prime minister, was an avowed racist who once admitted: "I hate Indians. … They are beastly people with a beastly religion." Hence his statue in London's Parliament Square being sprayed by BLM activists in June.
The difference is that Jefferson and Churchill were not philosophers but hardheaded politicians engaged in the practical necessities of state, such as prosecuting major conflicts. Churchill is considered a hero of World War II and credited in part with the destruction of Nazism, while Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, paving the way for the revolutionary war against British rule. Victory in wars perceived as moral ones can be viewed as overriding considerably less glorious episodes.
Voltaire, in contrast, was devoted to ideas, including ones that have had a pernicious effect on the minds of historical players throughout the ages. His virulent hatred of religious groups was easily enough to incite violence against them, while his biological racism maintained that there were gradations of life forms and that Black people came somewhere near the bottom, just up from "monkeys." In Les Lettres d'Amabed (1769), Voltaire portrayed Africans as "animals" with a "flat black nose with little or no intelligence!"
Voltaire was also an obsessive anti-Semite, using multiple texts to place Jews well outside the great civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome that he admired—and indeed beyond redemption. For example, writing about Jews in his Letter of Memmius to Cicero in 1771, Voltaire opined: "They are, all of them, born with raging fanaticism in their hearts, just as the Bretons and the Germans are born with blond hair." In an essay the following year, Voltaire adjudicated on Jews with the words: "You deserve to be punished, for this is your destiny."
Unlike the usual motivations for anti-Semitism—irrational fear combined with ignorance—Voltaire's chilling beliefs were based on quasi-scientific reasoning.
This was typical of Enlightenment philosophers, who provided disturbing justifications for the hatred of racial and religious groups. In Of National Characters, David Hume wrote: "I am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites." Immanuel Kant called Jews a "nation of cheaters."
This systematic racism created a pseudo-scientific hierarchy of life. It ensured that the thinkers were inextricably intertwined with the imperialists who wanted to conquer and oppress supposedly lesser races.
Such Enlightenment wickedness was not marginal to the work of these ideologues. Their writings were widely read across Europe, including by Voltaire's great friend, King Frederick II of Prussia. Voltaire traveled from Paris to join the monarch's court at Potsdam in 1750, at a time when Frederick II embraced his live-in Frenchman as a mentor.
The historical line between Voltaire's anti-Semitism and a fanatically nationalistic Germany intent on murdering enemies it considered to be subhuman is not hard to draw. Adolf Hitler certainly became a keen student of the discussions between Frederick the Great and Voltaire as he formulated his plans for the Third Reich.
Frederick II ostensibly promoted the ideas behind such works as Voltaire's 1763 Treatise on Tolerance while issuing anti-Jewish decrees and focusing on militaristic nationalism and the kind of unthinking discipline that supported Nazism.
Crucially, there are records of Hitler's private talks in which he confirmed studying correspondence and meetings between Voltaire and his hero Frederick II, whose portrait was in the Berlin Führerbunker where the dictator died in April 1945.
Stenographers had noted Hitler in 1941 saying: "A reading of the polemical writings of the 17th and 18th centuries, or of the conversations between Frederick II and Voltaire, inspires one with shame at our low intellectual level, especially amongst the military."
Like Voltaire, Hitler believed that Jews had no praiseworthy culture of their own and simply copied others. Hitler's speeches were littered with phrases that plagiarized Voltaire, such as: "The Jewish people, with all its apparent intellectual qualities, is nevertheless without any true culture of its own. … With this, the Jew lacks those qualities which distinguish creatively the culturally blessed races."
The problem is not simply that Voltaire failed to incorporate persecuted groups such as Black people and Jews into his so-called progressive thinking; it is that his advocacy of biological racism and white supremacy still offer justification to all kinds of extremists. These include Nazi sympathizers traditionally linked to France's far-right National Rally (formerly the National Front) as well as terrorists who target synagogues and mosques.
With such intellectual role models, it is no surprise that millions in France still vote for a party founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen—a convicted anti-Semite and Holocaust denier.
French President Emmanuel Macron has insisted that statues of the men linked to highly reprehensible ideologies are a part of France's heritage and should not be removed. This is a reactionary view that completely ignores a far more pertinent question: Why should Enlightenment racists remain sacrosanct? The complacent French have revered discredited philosophers for far too long. It is about time that they learned how to reject them, so as to move on to a new age of reason.
Nabila Ramdani is an award-winning French-Algerian journalist, columnist, and broadcaster who specializes in French politics, Islamic affairs, and the Arab world.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Foreign Policy, and is published by special syndication arrangement