As France sends us a second Statue of Liberty, its symbolism is debated
PARIS – At the Museum of Arts and Crafts, none of the first tourist spots in Paris, in the subdued light of an old church, draws up the plaster model of the Statue of Liberty. Made in 1878 by the French sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, eight years before the inauguration of Lady Liberty in New York Harbor, it represents the first complete representation of what would become, for many but not for all, a primordial icon of freedom.
Model and statue have never been nearby in New York. But now one of America’s oldest alliances, formally cemented in 1778 after the French backed the War of Independence, must be marked by some sort of reunion. A bronze reproduction of Bartholdi’s model will cross the Atlantic this month to stand for the first time near its much larger counterpart.
At 2.8 meters, or 9.3 feet, the museum’s model is about a sixteenth the size of the American statue it spawned. Its ornate pedestal, shaped like a ship’s bow, contains a colorful diorama of the sight that travelers to New York City would enjoy once the statue is installed.
It amounted to a 19th century fundraising and marketing exercise. Visitors drawn to the imagined sight could contribute money to “this fraternal work” of two united nations “to forge American independence,” as a plaque on the model puts it.
“It was the French people, not the government, who wanted and paid for this statue,” said Philippe Étienne, the French ambassador to the United States, in an interview.
A mutual fascination has long linked France and the United States. Each republic was born out of a revolution inspired by an idea it saw as a model of freedom for the rest of the world. No other country claims so much the universality of its virtue – and the torch of Liberty, conceived in Paris, raised in New York, reflects this shared aspiration. (A copy of the Statue of Liberty, donated to France by the American community in Paris in 1889, also overlooks the Seine.)
“We are emerging from the pandemic, the United States has taken a political leap – this is a good time to celebrate the freedom and the values our countries share,” said Oliver Faron, the head of the body that oversees the Museum.
A crane lifted the 10-year-old bronze replica from its pedestal onto the museum grounds on June 7, beginning the transatlantic journey that will take it to Ellis Island, less than a mile from the Liberty Island statue, for the Independence Day Celebration. Mr. Faron observed: “For once, everyone agreed to have a statue removed!
The remark was made jokingly, but the meeting of Lady Liberty and her model will come at a time of historic reassessment and sweeping cultural change. Bartholdi’s statue of Christopher Columbus, long exhibited in Providence, RI, was removed last year. The once revered symbol of exploration and discovery had transformed for protesters into a symbol of colonialism and genocide.
The liberty, equality, and inalienable rights referred to in the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 – and which inspired Bartholdi – did not extend to enslaved workers , to the indigenous peoples of America or to women.
“We the people” freed mankind from the divine rights of monarchs, laying the groundwork for America’s democratic evolution, but the “people” at the time tended to be white male owners.
So, what exactly freedom was the statue celebrating at the end of the 19th century? For black America, hopes for post-Civil War Reconstruction had already given way to the yoke of Jim Crow’s racial segregation laws.
“The inauguration of the statue, and later the mounting of Emma Lazare’s poem on the pedestal, corresponded to a great moment of European immigration and American welcome,” said Pap Ndiaye, of Senegalese and French descent. and recently appointed director of the national museum. of immigration to Paris. “There is something glorious about it. “
At the same time, he continued, “It was also a very painful time for African Americans, as segregation and lynching was rampant in the South. France, meanwhile, was busy colonizing it. ‘Indochina and Africa.
Broken chains, representing the abolition of slavery, can be seen right next to the foot of the statue, which was the idea of a French abolitionist, Édouard de Laboulaye. Much more important, in the left hand of the statue, is the tablet on which is inscribed July 4, 1776, in Roman numerals. In an earlier model, the chains were more visible.
Mr. Ndiaye will attend a conference of historians later this month convened by the French Embassy in Washington. “The response to the statue’s contribution has been overwhelmingly positive, but we have to ask ourselves what Lady Liberty symbolizes today,” said Mr. Étienne. “Not everyone got here for free.”
After being on display at Ellis Island July 1-5, little Liberty will make it to Washington, in time for July 14. It will be mounted in the garden of the Ambassador’s residence and will remain there for a decade.
Its predecessor arrived in a kit in New York on June 17, 1885. The statue had been dismantled into 350 pieces of hammered copper contained in some 200 boxes shipped from Paris. These were to be assembled around an interior pylon designed by Gustave Eiffel, who knew something about ensuring the resilience of structures, as his tower inaugurated in 1889 will prove.
It took 16 months to assemble the statue on its American-made pedestal. The inauguration, on October 28, 1886, took place a decade after the centenary of American independence that Bartholdi had intended to mark, but the artist, always resourceful in his fundraising, finally succeeded.
Bartholdi was originally from Colmar in Alsace. The city came under German control after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. His interest in freedom and self-determination was rooted in painful personal experience, and he seems to have formed a deep belief that the United States could embody “freedom. enlightening the world ”- the formal name of his statue.
“The statue should be seen as a universal promise of freedom for all, even for those who did not benefit from it at the time,” suggested Mr. Ndiaye.
France and the United States, with their different models of commitment to universal rights, have struggled to confront their past as slavers and overcome persistent racism. Bitter debates continue on immigration in both societies.
Their democracies have been challenged, that of the United States by the Jan.6 assault on a crowd incited by Trump on Capitol Hill, that of France by coup threat letters from retired military officers. Deep fractures are evident in both societies, and there is little agreement on how to heal them.
However, the alliance formed in 1778, in resistance to the British and in shared ideas on the meaning of the Enlightenment, has proved its worth. This is the intended meaning of the reunion of statues. If Lady Liberty, a gift from France to her ally, then contained her share of hypocrisy, she also represented an eternal aspiration for free and egalitarian societies which resonated throughout the world.
The torch of Liberty and Lazarus’ “united masses yearning to breathe freely” can be seen as a constant exhortation to do better, Ndiaye suggested. Democracies, unlike autocracies, engage in open debate and evolve.
“The Statue of Liberty is very precious and must be preserved,” he said. “Our task today is to make his universal promise a reality for everyone”,
Mr. Étienne, the ambassador, added: “It lights up the world. And, at a time when our democracies are called into question, prompts us to ask ourselves: what is freedom?