France marks its eighth annual slavery Remembrance Day on Saturday, an event that has already sparked a heated debate which is threatening to derail the planned commemorations.
The day, which was first introduced in 2006, is celebrated annually on May 10 – the same date France adopted a law in 2001 officially recognising the slave trade and slavery as crimes against humanity.
Events are scheduled to be held across the country, but a handful of right-wing politicians have already threatened to mar the commemoration, equating the day to a form of “self-flagellation”.
Earlier this week, Thierry Mariani, a member of parliament from France’s conservative UMP party, caused outrage after tweeting that the recent kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria was “a reminder that Africa did not wait for the West to practice slavery”. He concluded his post with the hashtag #décupabilisation, which translates to “guilt free”.
‘Monopoly on guilt’
“We’ve had enough of hearing about the West’s monopoly on guilt,” Mariani explained to French radio station France Info. “We must stop writing a one-sided account of history”.
France’s National Committee for the Remembrance and History of Slavery declared that it was “scandalised” by Mariani’s comments. It argued that slavery was once again being used as “a tool to set ‘Whites’ against ‘Blacks’ and ran counter to the principals of the French Republic.”
The controversial statement by Mariani is not an isolated case. In April, Franck Briffaut, the newly-elected National Front mayor of Villers-Cotterêts, in Picardy, made clear he would not organise any events on May 10.
"These commemorations are part of the recent fashion for guilt, allowing people to jump on the political bandwagon. I doubt if these commemorations are entirely sincere," Briffaut told French weekly magazine "L’Express".
In response to Briffaut, an alliance of human rights groups and trade unions known as "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité", announced that it would still hold a demonstration to fight, "the normalisation of the ideas of the extreme right.” The groups also asked the French government to step in and force the mayor’s hand.
Tensions around May 10 are nothing new. Last year, the Representative Council of Black Associations (Cran) demanded financial and moral reparations from the French government. They stated that France had profited from slavery with the “ransom” it extracted from Haiti in return for independence in 1804.
French President François Hollande responded by stating, "You cannot rub out history. It also cannot be the subject of transactions created by accountants, which would, in any case, be impossible to calculate. The only course…is to remember, to be vigilant, to tell the story.”
Several historians agree that the question of reparations poses problems.
"It would be scandalous and distressing to tally the corpses of slaves and once more give them a cash value. It would also be impossible,” Myriam Cottias, president of the National Committee for the Remembrance and History of Slavery, told FRANCE24.
Date created : 2014-05-09