PARIS (AP) — A French activist for Black rights went on trial in Paris on Monday for defacing a statue of a historical figure from France’s colonial, slave-trading past, calling the protest a political act to denounce deep-seated racism.
Franco Lollia was on trial for spraying “state Negrophobia” in red paint on the pedestal of a statue outside parliament in Paris last June. The statue honors Jean-Baptiste Colbert, a 17th-century royal minister who wrote rules governing slaves in France’s overseas colonies.
Lollia told the court that, in his view, Colbert committed crimes against humanity. He said celebrating Colbert with a statue outside the National Assembly shows that the French state “is viscerally Negrophobic even today” and that the statue’s presence is “spitting in the face of all people who look like me.”
Lollia, who is Black, called the trial “an insult.”
“I am sad to see that history seems to be repeating itself and our voices are still not heard,” he said. “I am really disappointed that the justice system is still so blind.”
The trial coincided with France’s annual commemoration of the abolition of slavery. Lollia noted that the day isn’t marked with a national holiday, dismissing it as “a bone for a dog” that fails to adequately commemorate the horrors inflicted on millions of slaves.
The sweat-top and face mask that Lollia wore to the trial both had the words “Anti-Negrophobia Brigade” printed on them. Other words on the back of his T-shirt said “Negrophobia” is a “weapon of mass destruction that doesn’t admit its name” and exhorted: “Let’s arm ourselves to the hilt to fight it.”
The judge said video footage of the graffiti attack showed him hurling paint at the statue and spray-painting its base.
“It was a political act,” Lollia said.
The charge of defacing property is punishable by a fine or community service.
Lollia’s defense team argued that he acted in self-defense. His attorney Georges-Emmanuel Germany said the judge should consider France’s past behavior as “a criminal state” in weighing Lollia’s act.
“You are not only the judge of the accused,” the attorney said. “You are also the judge of the behavior of the victim” — meaning the French state.
Speaking outside the courtroom, Lollia said France’s colonial past is still feeding racial discrimination.
“Colbert is a major figure of this colonial past, this past where Black people were not recognized as human beings,” he said.
“The system itself is Negrophobic from the moment it doesn’t put into question the history,” he said. “France is capable of healing from its Negrophobia and from its state racism in general, but the French state must learn to face its history, and not only part of the history it likes.”