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France thinks U.S. needs another Statue of Liberty. Is the message outdated?
The original Statue of Liberty’s plaster model at the Musee des Arts et Metiers in Paris, June 7, 2021. The statue and a reproduction of her French sculptor’s model will stand close to each other, just as some are asking whose freedom she celebrates. Dmitry Kostyukov/The New York Times.

by Roger Cohen



PARIS (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- At the Museum of Arts and Crafts, not one of the premier tourist venues in Paris, in the subdued light of a former church, stands the plaster model for the Statue of Liberty. Made in 1878 by French sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, eight years before Lady Liberty’s inauguration in New York Harbor, it represents the first full imagining of what would become, for many but not all, a paramount icon of freedom.

Model and statue have never stood in proximity in New York. But now one of the oldest American alliances, formally cemented in 1778 after the French supported the Revolutionary War, is to be marked through a reunion of sorts. A bronze reproduction of Bartholdi’s model will cross the Atlantic this month to stand near her much larger counterpart for the first time.

At 9.3 feet, the model at the museum is about one-sixteenth the size of the American statue it spawned. Its ornate pedestal, in the form of a ship’s prow, contains a colorful diorama of the view voyagers to New York would enjoy once the statue was installed.

This amounted to a 19th-century exercise in fundraising and marketing. Visitors drawn to the imagined vista could contribute money to “this fraternal work” of two nations united “in forging 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,” Philippe Étienne, the French ambassador to the United States, said in an interview.

A mutual fascination has long bound France and the United States. Each republic was born of a revolution inspired by an idea that it saw as a model of freedom for the rest of the world. No other countries make such claims for the universality of their virtue — and Liberty’s torch, 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 stands overlooking the Seine).

“We are emerging from the pandemic, the United States has turned a political corner — it’s a good moment to celebrate 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 on the museum grounds on June 7, beginning the trans-Atlantic journey that will bring it to Ellis Island, less than a mile from the statue on Liberty Island, for the Independence Day celebration. Faron observed: “For once, everyone was in agreement that a statue be removed!”

The remark was made in jest, but the meeting of Lady Liberty and her model will take place at a time of sweeping historical reassessment and cultural shift. Bartholdi’s statue of Christopher Columbus, long on prominent display in Providence, Rhode Island, was removed last year. The once-venerated symbol of exploration and discovery had morphed for protesters into one of colonialism and genocide.

The liberty and equality and inalienable rights of which the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789 spoke — and which inspired Bartholdi — did not extend to enslaved workers, America’s Indigenous people or women.

“We the people” delivered humanity from the divine rights of monarchs, laying the basis for America’s evolving democratic journey, but the “people” tended at the time to be white male property owners.

So, whose freedom exactly did the statue celebrate at the end of the 19th century? For Black America, the hopes of Reconstruction after the Civil War had already given way to the yoke of Jim Crow racial segregation laws.

“The statue’s inauguration, and later the mounting of Emma Lazarus’ poem on the pedestal, corresponded with a great moment of European immigration and American welcome,” said Pap Ndiaye, who is of Senegalese and French descent and was recently named director of the national museum of immigration in Paris. “There is something glorious in this.”




At the same time, he continued, “It was also a very painful moment for African Americans, as segregation and lynching were rampant across the South. France, meanwhile, was busy colonizing Indochina and Africa.”

Broken shackles, representing slavery’s abolition, are just visible beside the foot of the statue, which was the idea of a French abolitionist, Édouard de Laboulaye. Far more prominent, in the statue’s left hand, is the tablet inscribed with July 4, 1776, in Roman numerals. In an earlier model, the shackles were more conspicuous.

Ndiaye will participate in a historians’ conference later this month convened by the French Embassy in Washington. “The response to bringing the statue has been overwhelmingly positive, but we need to ask what Lady Liberty symbolizes today,” Étienne said. “Not everyone arrived here free.”

After display on Ellis Island from July 1 to 5, the little Liberty will proceed to Washington, in time for Bastille Day on July 14. She will be mounted in the garden of the ambassador’s residence and remain there for a decade.

Her predecessor arrived in kit form in New York on June 17, 1885. The statue had been dismantled into 350 pieces of hammered copper contained in some 200 boxes sent from Paris. These were to be assembled around an inner pylon designed by Gustave Eiffel, who knew something of ensuring the resilience of structures, as his tower inaugurated in 1889 would prove.

Assembling the statue on its American-made pedestal took 16 months. The inauguration on Oct. 28, 1886, was held a decade after the centennial of American independence that Bartholdi had intended to mark, but the artist, ever resourceful in his fundraising, got there in the end.

Bartholdi was from Colmar in Alsace. The town 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 appears to have formed a deep conviction that the United States could embody “Liberty Enlightening the World” — the formal name of his statue.

“We should see in the statue a universal promise of freedom for everyone, even for those who did not benefit from it at the time,” Ndiaye suggested.

Both France and the United States, with their different models of commitment to universal rights, have struggled with how to confront their slave-owning pasts and overcome persistent racism. Virulent debates continue about immigration in both societies.

Their democracies have been challenged, America’s by the Jan. 6 assault of a Trump-incited mob on the Capitol, France’s by coup-threatening letters from retired military officers. Deep fractures are evident in both societies, and there is little agreement on how to heal them.

Still, the alliance formed in 1778, in resistance to the British and in shared ideas of the meaning of the Enlightenment, has proved resilient. That is the intended sense of the statues’ reunion. If Lady Liberty, France’s gift to its ally, contained her share of hypocrisy at the time, she also represented an eternal aspiration for free and equal societies that has resonated across the world.

Liberty’s torch, and Lazarus’ “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” may 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 her universal promise true for everybody,”

Étienne, the ambassador, added: “She lights the world. And, at a time when our democracies are questioned, encourages us to ask: What is liberty?”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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June 21, 2021

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