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Commemorating the abolition of slavery in France: ‘This is our history’

A "memorial" sculpture, decorated with a ribbon in the colours of the French flag, was unveiled in the gardens of Bordeaux's town hall on December 2, 2019.
A "memorial" sculpture, decorated with a ribbon in the colours of the French flag, was unveiled in the gardens of Bordeaux's town hall on December 2, 2019. © Georges Gobet, AFP

The commemorations of the abolition of slavery in France scheduled for May 10 will take place despite the coronavirus pandemic, but in small groups or virtually. A Facebook Live is being organised by the Foundation for the Memory of Slavery, in partnership with FRANCE 24.

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Due to the coronavirus pandemic, celebration of the National Day of Remembrance of the Slave Trade, Slavery and Its Abolition, held every year in France on May 10, has been disrupted.

A ceremony presided over by Prime Minister Édouard Philippe was held on Sunday, but on a small scale. "We will not put this commemoration on hold, despite the health requirements," former prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, now president of the Foundation for the Memory of Slavery, told FRANCE 24.

Ayrault’s foundation was charged with overseeing the remembrances this year. In addition, regional prefects were asked by the Prime Minister to organise commemorative ceremonies for the public in each department, while respecting the rules of social distancing.

"There will be modest national ceremonies, in Paris with the Prime Minister, but also in provincial and overseas communes with the help of associations," Ayrault said. "A lot of things are going to happen on May 10, including the organisation of a live broadcast on Facebook."

The live broadcast, in partnership with FRANCE 24, will bring together politicians, artists and historians for discussion.

"This is not about creating division"

The theme of this year's commemorations is 'The Missing Page'.

"We don't know how the existing framework was established. We know that there was slavery and abolition, but we know less about the fact that it took three revolutions to achieve abolition," Ayrault said.

For the former mayor of the city of Nantes, a hub in the slave trade, the occasion provides an opportunity to recall the place that slavery occupies in our national history. "It leaves deep traces and wounds. They must be repaired. It is not a question of creating division nor of setting memories against each other," Ayrault stressed, referring to critics, who complain of an excess of repentance. "This is our history. And for us to share it, we must make it known.

"The aim is not to make people feel guilty, but to provide keys to understanding and to a way of living together based on justice, equality, the fight against all forms of discrimination and racism, but also fraternity," Ayrault said, adding that it was "a contemporary struggle".

An estimated 12 to 18 million slaves were taken from sub-Saharan Africa to the Americas during the transatlantic slave trade. Under the impetus of the philosophers of the Enlightenment, a critique of slavery and the slave trade began to emerge in France in the 18th century. In his 1748 book "The Spirit of the Laws ", Charles de Montesquieu is sarcastic about "those who call themselves Christians and who practice slavery". In 1788, the Society of Friends of Blacks was created in Paris and campaigned for abolition.

A long road to abolition

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 abolished slavery but had no impact in the French West Indies. It was not until February 1794 that the Society of Friends of Blacks succeeded in winning abolition. Napoléon Bonaparte, however, very quickly re-established slavery and the slave trade in 1802.

It was not until 27 April 1848 that a decree by the provisional government of the Second Republic definitively abolished slavery in all the French colonies. The abolition of slavery was enshrined in the Constitution on November 4, 1848.

This article was translated from the original in French.

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