May 18, 2006– Vol. 41, No. 40

France commemorates day for victims of slave trade

Jenny Barchfield

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 Guadeloupe.

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 Caribbean colonies.

(Associated Press)




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