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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Le passé esclavagiste de la France sort de l’oubli

by Rosa Moussaoui

France’s forgotten history of slavery returns to view

Translated Saturday 17 May 2008, by Susannah Readett-Bayley

Memory. The slave trade and historic violence to black populations that have been hidden for so long in history books are slowly but surely being acknowledged. Freedom march tomorrow, in Paris.

On April 28th, 1948, at the centenary celebration of the abolition of slavery at the Sorbonne, Aimé Césaire described the event in 1848 as “both huge but also insufficient”. Huge, because shortly after the rise of the people in a revolution that would topple the ‘Monarchie de Juillet’ [1] the decree of abolition of slavery was declared, a result of the combined struggle against slavery and the dogged combat by men such as Victor Schoelcher. Insufficient, because the Republic would continue to dominate with other forms of colonialism, and because, while this decree would end the practice of slavery in the colonies, it would mark the beginning of many years of denial. This denial was flagrant in French President Jacques Chirac’s astounding declaration in 2000 at Point-à-Pitre: “Haiti has never been a French colony in the true sense of the word.” Two years before, however, 40,000 people claiming to be “descendants of slaves” mainly of West-Indian origin met on May 23rd, 1998 to march in Paris to “condemn the official denial of slavery”

A “crime against humanity”

This movement — that demands that the hunting, capture, deportation, reduction to servitude, and subjection to the most atrocious cruelty and exploitation of millions of human beings be officially recognized — achieved a breakthrough in 2001 when the Taubira Law was voted in. This text, which calls slavery and the slave trade “crimes against humanity”, was a concrete step in bringing these issues back into national dialogue.

The nomination of May 10th as the national day of commemoration was an opportunity for civil society to make up for all the years that slavery had been a non-subject in national memory. The date, however, was contested, and from now on it is the 23rd that will mark the national day for the commemoration of the slave trade, slavery and their abolition. It is an official decision that is commended by the committee of the march that took place on the 23rd of May and is justified by the prime minister François Fillon in these terms “this date reminds us, on the one hand of the abolition of slavery in 1848 and on the other, of the silent march that took place on May 23rd 1998 (…) May 23rd will be a date where associations, including both French citizens from overseas territories and France itself, commemorate the painful past of their ancestors.” The 10th of May will, however, be kept as a day to commemorate the history of the black slave trade, slavery and their abolition.

In the spirit of shared memory

In the desire to make May a month to commemorate abolitions in a “nomadic and diffracted” way (see opposite), the poet and philosopher Edouard Glissant from Martinique calls to “harmonise” dates which “are not in harmony” in a simultaneous desire “to separate them and to bring them together”. Exhibitions, a silent march, inauguration of monuments, laying of wreaths, a minute’s silence, theatre pieces, journeys back in time, a concert. As if in response to this call to action in France, once more this year millions of initiatives will take place over different dates to commemorate this inexcusable tragedy, in the spirit of a shared memory wishing to readopt this past as a shared past. The climax of these events: a Freedom March on May 10th from Place de la République to Place de la Bastille in Paris, paying homage to the millions of deported Africans and to their descendants, slaves from the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean.

While France, over the last few years, gives the impression of a country sickened by its memories, all these acts, gestures and monuments of human dignity are necessary; because there are still those who deny that the western slave trade that made industrial capitalism possible in Europe was a tragic singularity and, instead, perceive it as an example of a recurring phenomenon visible throughout the history of humanity. Because modern day explanations are being developed in front of our very eyes, relics of racist ideology are being falsified to justify the use of some human beings by other human beings, the cruellest example being the ‘Code Noir’: the draining of the African continent by the slave trade, colonisation and neo-colonial domination — all of which are now causing generalised hunger riots. Such an entrenched colonial ideology sees the role of colonisation praised and as “positive”. Wounds from remembering are deepened by the denial… But also the mixing of colour within French society that even a minister of national identity can’t slow down.

“How is it possible not to imagine that past violence committed against black people in the irons of slavery is not everybody’s concern?” said Ivorian author Koffi Kwahulé in l’Humanité on May 5th. This month of May, during the 160 year commemorations of the abolition of slavery, the universal dimension will be central.

[1The Régime of Louis-Philippe 1st which lasted from 1830 to 1848 and ended after a revolution that gave rise to the Second Republic

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