Lenin Takes a Stand in French City

Twenty years after Lenin’s statue began to tumble across post-Communist Eastern Europe, the southern French city of Montpellier has erected a new 3.3 metre bronze of the Russian revolutionary.

Flamboyant regional leader Georges Freche took delivery of five new statues for the southern city of Montpellier, celebrating his heroes Lenin, Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Franklin Roosevelt and Jean Jaures.

Each weighs between 850 kilograms and a tonne. And each cost local taxpayers an estimated €200,000 (US$260,000). They were unveiled this week and will be formally inaugurated next month.

Freche, a populist local strongman and former Socialist who in recent years has been shunned by the party after a series of controversial remarks on race, says the figures will honour the “great men of the 20th century.”

Next year, five more heroes – mainly national liberation leaders – will arrive: India’s Mahatma Gandhi, Israel’s Golda Meir, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and Chinese Communist Mao Zedong.

The city will pay €1.81 million ($1.9 million) for the first statues and Freche hopes to later bring in Senegalese poet-president Leopold Sedar Senghor, Mexican rebel Pancho Villa, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and perhaps even Stalin.

Unveiling the Lenin bronze, in a square in the east of the city, Freche appeared delighted at the attention generated by his latest stunt.

“I’m an anti-Stalinist, but I might put him up one day as the victor of Stalingrad,” he said, referring to the brutal World War II battle between the Soviet Red Army and Hitler’s invading Axis forces. “I always was a little bit ahead of history.”

Freche’s political opponents have criticised the operation as a waste of money and suggest it has more to do with his love of notoriety than with an exercise in historical memory.

The Green Party has threatened to dismantle the statues, and the right-wing UMP is furious to see its hero – Free French wartime leader De Gaulle – standing alongside the Russian Bolshevik revolutionary Lenin.

“We could have had a vote for the people of Montpellier to decide who their ‘great men’ are,” complained local UMP deputy Jacques Domergue.

“Instead we got Freche’s latest diktat. It’s the ultimate sign of megalomania from a man who probably wants a statue of himself one day.”

Passers-by appeared more amused than annoyed by the Lenin statue, and Freche himself laughed off the charge that he wants to join the ranks of leaders immortalised in bronze. “Why not?” he said with a grin.

Freche, who is president of the Languedoc-Roussillon region and chairman of Montpellier’s development community, enjoys strong personal support despite, or perhaps because of, a history of controversial remarks.

In a recent interview with Montpellier’s local newspaper La Gazette, Freche defended his decision to honour Lenin and Mao, insisting their political legacy outweighs the bloodshed associated with their regimes.

Lenin – full name Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov – Russia’s October Revolution in 1917 and was leader of the Soviet state until his death 1924, a period of civil war and violent political repression.

He is still honoured as a historical figure in several cities of the former Soviet Union, but his once ubiquitous statue has been torn down in former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe since they escaped Moscow’s grip.

Mao led China’s Communist revolution and set the world’s most populous country on the path to great power status, but has also been blamed for the violence and famines of 1950s and 1960s, in which tens of millions died.

“It’s not the number of dead that count, it’s the number of historic events that are triggered,” said Freche. “That’s why I chose Lenin.”

Freche’s penchant for controversy has stifled any national ambitions.

Most famously, in November 2006, he complained that there were too many blacks in the French football team. And he has been filmed calling a group of activists of Algerian descent “sub-humans.”

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