Where is Voltaire? It’s a question many Parisians have been asking since a statue of the philosopher vanished from a discreet garden on the Left Bank facing the Seine.
The mystery of the missing Voltaire is a reverse whodunit: we know who removed the statue — the city of Paris confessed to it. The mystery is the Paris council’s motives. Also, the victim of this kidnapping — Voltaire — has still not been discovered after nearly two years.
Now, under increasing pressure from the media, the Paris city council is hinting that the missing Voltaire may soon be visible again in the French capital.
For many, the timing of Voltaire’s disappearance was suspicious from the outset. The statue was hauled away during the Black Lives Matter statue-toppling frenzy following the death of George Floyd. In Paris, activists defaced monuments of French colonial generals and a statue of Louis XIV’s powerful minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert. The Voltaire statue, too, was splashed with paint, but quickly cleaned. Then, several weeks later, it vanished.
Many blamed the hard-Left Greens on Paris’ city council — they are notorious for such acts. But the statue’s disappearance was also a sign of a deeper malaise: in recent years, Voltaire has been a symbolic casualty in the pitched battles tearing apart the French Republic.
Attacking a figure like Voltaire has always been controversial in France, where the Enlightenment philosopher has been venerated for centuries. He was the first of the French Republic’s “great men” to be enshrined in the Pantheon. Such was the philosopher’s fame as a cherished national hero that, during the Pantheon ceremony in 1791, more than a million people lined the streets of Paris during the procession.
Yet in today’s turbulent climate, that reputation has become increasingly “problematic”. For many on today’s Left, Voltaire is now the embodiment of the racism, colonialism, and patriarchy that they are fiercely seeking to dismantle.
Already in the Seventies, Marxist critics were hostile, viewing him as an elitist member of the Enlightenment bourgeoisie and friend to kings and aristocrats. Voltaire’s great rival, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, was a more palatable philosopher to the Left. While Voltaire was a champion of civilisation and universalist values, Rousseau believed that we are born good but are corrupted by society.
Objections to Voltaire tend to be focused on his personal opinions and attitudes. His critics argue that he was a racist, homophobe, and anti-Semite. They find evidence for these claims by digging through his correspondences and pamphlets to unearth offensive phrases that make his attitudes seem repugnant today. Typical of anti-Voltaire diatribe is a recent opinion piece in Foreign Policy by French-Algerian journalist Nabila Ramdani. She described the philosopher as “an unapologetic racist and anti-Semite who inspired Hitler”.
Voltaire’s opinions about Jews, often described as anti-Semitic, were complicated. He was critical of biblical Judaism and regarded the Hebrew slaughter of Canaanites as an unspeakable atrocity. Elsewhere in his writings, however, Voltaire portrayed Jews as victims of persecution. On the Crusades, he observed that Christians “believed that they were going to defend Jesus Christ and imagined it was necessary to exterminate all the Jews they met along the way”. In Candide, Voltaire was more sympathetic to Jews than to Catholic priests. This is because while Voltaire criticised Jews, his real target was religion. He was a lifelong adversary of religious devotion, fanaticism, and superstition.
After the Voltaire statue vanished, Paris officials initially claimed the Voltaire statue had been taken away for “cleaning”. Yet as a photo of the statue being removed clearly showed, the statue didn’t need another cleaning. It was neither dirty, defaced, nor seriously damaged. In truth, the “cleaning” rationale never seemed credible.
Facing increasing pressure on social media, the Paris council has recently come up with another narrative about the Voltaire statue. It was taken away, they claim, to undergo restoration (some cosmetic surgery on the philosopher’s nose was needed, apparently). The statue will not be returning to its original pedestal, however; it will be moved to the faculty of medicine where it will be protected from the inclemency of the weather. No date has been given for Voltaire’s reappearance, only the vague reassurance that it will be “some time this year.”
Whether the fate of the Voltaire statue has more to do with the effects of inclement weather or the battering storms of radical-Left politics at the Paris city council, time will tell. In the meantime, Parisians will keep asking: Where is Voltaire?