The statue of Victor Hugo has loomed outside the city hall of his birthplace, situated on the Esplanade for Human Rights, since 2003, his white beard knotty, his black suit rumpled, his face cast down at his pocket watch.
Over the years, the colored bronze began to fade, turning to brown and green, until the mayor’s office recently hired an expert to do a restoration.
And that is when the seemingly unremarkable refurbishment of a statue turned into another controversy in France about race, identity and the importation of American “woke” ideas about racial injustice — what the French call “le wokisme.”
The city hall’s Facebook site announced the statue had been restored to reflect the original work by the celebrated Senegalese sculptor Ousmane Sow, who, it said, liked color and was not keen on “simple bronzes.” The comments rolled in, some positive, others critical with one focus — the color of Hugo’s skin.
“We’ve gone from Victor Hugo to Morgan Freeman,” wrote one commentator.
Mr. Sow, who was often called the Auguste Rodin of Senegal, died in 2016. A reporter from the Besançon newspaper called Béatrice Soulé, Mr. Sow’s widowed partner in Dakar, Senegal’s capital.
She agreed that the restoration was flawed, saying that the statue “looks like a Black Victor Hugo, which was never Ousmane’s intention.”
In a later interview with The New York Times, Ms. Soulé said that perhaps she spoke too freely. “It was a sentence I should never have spoken,” she said. “And it let off a powder keg.”
After another attempt at restoration, the color of the statue was returned to what Ms. Soulé considered “magnificent” and an “exact replica of the original,” which reflected a man of light-brown skin. But what might have been forgiven as part of a complicated restoration process — and quietly corrected — was immediately sucked up into an ugly, protracted battle over social media.
Right-wing politicians accused the city’s Green party mayor of literally trying to paint her politically correct views onto a French hero.
National radio and newspapers picked up the story.
The town hall’s switchboard was flooded by so many furious calls it was shut down.
Two nights after the town hall’s initial Facebook post, masked men vandalized the statue, repainting Victor Hugo’s face “a beautiful white color,” as they called it online, adding that it was now “truly French, truly from Besançon.” On the photograph they took of their work, they added a Celtic cross and the words “white power.”
“We are in denial of our colonial history,” said Fabrice Riceputi, a historian in Besançon who specializes on the country’s troubled colonial history in Algeria, which ended 60 years ago after a brutal war of independence that left 500,000 dead by French estimates, and 1.5 million by Algerian ones.
“Calling someone woke is a way of outright disqualifying all critical looks at history, all anti-racist actions, and it can degenerate into a witch hunt,” he added. “And it legitimizes little minds, like the ones who did this in Besançon, whose actions can be violent.”