A new bar in Lyon, France, is drawing anger for its nostalgic use of French colonialism (and its attendant atrocities, including slavery) as a theme.
La Première Plantation (“The First Plantation” in English) opened recently in the city’s wealthy and predominantly white sixth arrondissement. Various elements of the bar invoke French colonial activity in the Caribbean, from images of slaves in the bathrooms, to drinks with names like “Trader’s Punch.” The bar’s name references French sugar cane plantations — colonies like Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) were major producers of sugar, and from the mid-1600s, relied heavily on slaves for production and trade of sugar. Official descriptions of the bar say that “you’re not in the heart of Lyon, you’re in a new neighborhood: the Jungle District.”)
The bar started drawing negative attention after an article from local journalist Julie Hainaut, who wrote that she found the owners’ explanations of the bar’s concept to be “questionable.”
Speaking to Hainaut, owners Gabriel Desvallées and Matthieu Henry said “[they] wanted to revive the colonial spirit, a spirit of coolness, and a time when people really knew how to entertain.”
Hainaut wrote that she thought she had misheard (“I thought someone had drugged my cocktail”), and sought clarification by asking if colonialism was “cool.” The owners replied, “In its spirit, yes, it was a nice period.”
She then asked about the role that slaves played in French colonization. The owners noted in response that there were pictures of slaves in the bar’s bathrooms.
The backlash was swift. The bar’s Facebook (now deactivated) was inundated with negative reviews, and a local anti-racism collective Le Collectif des Raciné-e-s demanded the immediate closure of the bar, launching a petition that now counts thousands of signatures. The petition states that “colonial times were rife with atrocities, crimes against humanity, looting and barbarism... this period should in no way be described as ‘cool’ and used for commercial gain in a ‘trendy’ bar.”
The owners wrote a response to the criticism on Facebook, saying that they never intended to be apologists for colonization, and that “the word plantation has no negative connotations in our minds.” Henry spoke to the Huffington Post’s French edition, saying he refused to validate Hainaut’s report on the bar, implying that he had been quoted out of context.
Speaking to another local publication, Henry said the bar would change its name in response to the backlash, although with no mention of whether the theme would change.
This isn’t the first time an establishment has settled for some sort of colonial theme: in 2016, a Portland bakery-restaurant, Saffron Colonial, faced a similar response, although it arguably didn’t delve into the theme quite so heavily (that is, no pictures of slaves in the bathrooms). Similarly, that restaurant tried to deflect criticism by changing its name to British Overseas Restaurant Corporation, or BORC.
• La Première Plantation, ou l’art de se planter [Le Petit Bulletin]
• Polémique autour d'un bar lyonnais, "La Première Plantation", accusé de faire l'apologie de l’esclavage [Huffington Post]
• Controversial Colonial-Themed Restaurant Changes Name [EPDX]