France commemorates day for victims of slave trade
PARIS — Last Wednesday, France for the first time honored
the victims of its slave trade, 158 years after it stopped the practice
of taking people from their African homelands and enslaving them
in Caribbean colonies.
President Jacques Chirac, marking the new national day of commemoration
for slavery and its abolition, said the trade’s millions of
victims deserved “memory and justice.”
“Looking directly at our past is one of the keys to our national
cohesion,” said Chirac, speaking at a ceremony in Paris’
Luxembourg Gardens, where he inaugurated an exhibit by Lea de Saint-Julien,
an artist whose father came from the French Caribbean island of
The day of memory was timed to coincide with a law enacted on May
10, 2001, that declared slavery a crime against humanity. Chirac
said the law — the world’s first — “blazed
the trail for other nations.”
Cities throughout France scheduled ceremonies, readings, concerts
and other events. The Atlantic port city of Nantes, where many of
France’s slave ships originated, held a minute of silence.
In Paris, the Louvre Museum and National Library offered tours of
artwork and manuscripts on slavery. Visits were free to the Pantheon,
which holds the remains of several famous French abolitionists.
Some criticized the commemorations, which came amid simmering debate
in France about its colonial past, as too little, too late.
A federation representing France’s black community complained
that the holiday was fraught with divisions, with little coordination
between the government and interest groups.
“We thought the government was going to organize a historical
celebration, but ... that’s not the case,” the group’s
president, Patrick Lozes, told The Associated Press.
France abolished slavery in 1794, after a successful revolt by slaves
in the island colony of Saint Domingue, which later became Haiti.
But that initial abolition — Europe’s first —
was short-lived: Napoleon re-established slavery in 1802, and it
was not until 1848 that France put a definitive end to slavery.
France was Europe’s fourth-largest slave trader after Portugal,
England and Spain. French ships transported an estimated 1.25 million
slaves, according to experts. Captured in Africa, most slaves were
shipped across the Atlantic to toil on plantations in France’s