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Behind sketch of black MP in shackles, a French failure to confront slave legacy

A memorial to the victims of slavery pictured in the gardens of the town hall of Bordeaux, a city that owes much of its wealth to the colonial-era slave trade.
A memorial to the victims of slavery pictured in the gardens of the town hall of Bordeaux, a city that owes much of its wealth to the colonial-era slave trade. © Georges Gobet, AFP

A row over a right-wing magazine depicting a black lawmaker as a slave in shackles has cast a stark light on the toxic – and largely unspoken – legacy of slavery in France, a country more accustomed to discussing its abolitionist past than the lucrative slave trade it took part in.

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At the height of France’s recent anti-racism protests, inspired by the global outrage that followed George Floyd’s killing in the US, French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to be “uncompromising in the face of racism, anti-Semitism and all discriminations”.

However, he insisted that France would tolerate none of the statue-toppling that had seen protesters from Britain to the French Caribbean take down monuments to colonial-era figures, many of them closely associated with the transatlantic slave trade.

“The [French] Republic will not erase any trace, or any name, from its history (...) It will not take down any statue,” Macron declared, adding that the “noble cause” of anti-racism “is corrupted when it is transformed into (...) false and hateful rewritings of our history”.

His words signalled a “missed opportunity” to establish the facts about a dark chapter in France’s history, according to Carole Reynaud-Paligot, a historian and sociologist who recently curated an exhibition on racism at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.

They were also “deeply unjust” towards protesters, many of them youths from France’s impoverished, ethnically diverse suburbs, who sought recognition of this troubled history, she told FRANCE 24.

“All nation states feel the need to establish a national narrative that glorifies their past,” she said. “Slavery does not fit France’s narrative of the country of human rights, so it is largely concealed. Instead, the French narrative tells of a country that did its colonies a lot of good and spearheaded the fight for abolition.”

‘A putrid novel’

Hateful rewritings of French history took a particularly sinister twist on Saturday with the release of a blatantly racist publication depicting — under the cover of fiction — black lawmaker Danièle Obono as an 18th-century slave in shackles. 

Weekly magazine Valeurs Actuelles, which caters to readers on the right and far right, portrayed Obono in chains with an iron collar on her neck to illustrate an imaginary story in which the leftwing lawmaker of Gabonese origin returns to her “ancestral continent” at the time of the slave trade.

Responding to the publication, Obono tweeted: “The extreme right – odious, stupid and cruel.” She later described it as “an insult to my ancestors” and “an insult to the Republic”, slamming a political attack on those who fight against “the racism [and] stigmatisation that millions of our compatriots are subjected to.”

Valeurs Actuelles drew condemnation from across the political spectrum, including from Macron, who raised eyebrows last year when he gave an interview to the weekly and praised it as a "good magazine".

The French presidency said Macron called Obono and "expressed his clear condemnation of any form of racism". His prime minister, Jean Castex, lambasted a "revolting publication that calls for clear condemnation" and told Obono that she had the government's backing.

"One is free to write a putrid novel within the limits fixed by the law. One is free to hate it. I hate it," added the justice minister, Éric Dupond-Moretti, while the junior minister for equality and the only black member of the French government, Élisabeth Moreno, also tweeted her support – though she felt the need to add, "I don't share Danielle Obono's ideas.” 

On Monday, the Paris prosecutor, Rémy Heitz, said a preliminary investigation had been opened into “attacks of a racist nature”.

Ideological readings of the past

In its defence, Valeurs Actuelles invoked the “fight against political correctness”. It apologised to Obono on Saturday but denied intending to hurt her. Its aim, deputy editor Tugdual Denis told BFM television, was to show the “destroyers of history” that Africans were also responsible for the “horrors of slavery”. 

The magazine’s self-styled “provocative” publications are “typical of right-wing nationalist discourse,” according to Reynaud-Paligot. 

“The aim is to deflect responsibility in order to minimise France’s wrongdoings, while at the same time rejecting people who are presented as different, as foreign,” she said.

“Of course some Africans were involved in the slave trade, every system of domination relies on intermediaries,” she added. “But it does not diminish the responsibility of those who planned, administered and profited from this system.”

Myriam Cottias, a historian of the slave trade at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research, agreed that the magazine’s take on this sensitive history is “entirely ideological”.

The conservative weekly “seeks to prove that there is a taboo on inter-African slavery, which is absolutely false, the subject having been amply researched and documented,” Cottias told FRANCE 24.

The “clearly racist” depiction of Obono in shackles also harks back to a racist discourse derived from the 18th century, when “the terms black and slave became virtually equivalent,” she added. “In this respect, hiding behind fiction is no excuse. They could easily have portrayed Obono as an African queen fighting against slavery – there were plenty at the time – but they deliberately chose not to.” 

Not our history

The attempt by the conservative magazine to deflect responsibility for the slave trade carried out by European colonial powers reflects a tendency to treat slavery as a peripheral issue in French history.

Speaking to FRANCE 24 earlier this year, Maboula Soumahoro, a specialist of African diaspora studies at the University of Tours, explained that French colonialism had exported slavery and racism throughout the world, but outside mainland France.

“Because slavery was illegal on the mainland, people in France have the impression that this hyper-racialised history that is characteristic of the modern world only concerns the Americas, when in fact we have our own history,” Soumahoro said. 

>> ‘Black and treated as such’: France’s anti-racism protests expose myth of colour-blind Republic

According to Cottias, the failure to recognise slavery and the slave trade as central to French history, and to the wealth accumulated during the colonial era, is still evident in the way they are taught at school.

Though obligatory in French secondary schools, slavery as a subject is taught in a selective, superficial way, she explained. In the current programme, pupils learn about slavery in Brazil and the United States, whereas France’s role is largely approached through the “glorious” angle of the abolitionist struggle.

“How can you abolish slavery if you haven’t first studied it?” Cottias asked. “How can you not talk about the fabulous wealth of France’s slave ports, the history of Caribbean territories that are now French departments, the enslavement of people whose descendants are today part of the French nation?”

Over the years, French ambivalence regarding this past has translated into widely differing political initiatives. 

In 2001, under a Socialist government, lawmaker Christiane Taubira – one of only a handful of black politicians to have held a high-ranking ministerial portfolio under France’s five republics – sponsored a landmark bill that recognised slavery as a crime against humanity. 

Just four years later, a conservative administration sought to pass a law stating the “benefits” of colonisation for France’s colonial subjects, until a backlash led by historians forced it to back down.

Who’s the separatist?

While critics of the anti-racism protests have accused them of undermining national cohesion, experts warn that a frank and open reckoning with France’s history is crucial to healing existing divides.

“The point is not to exacerbate French guilt, but to establish and recognise facts in order to allay resentments and frustrations,” said Reynaud-Paligot. “Failure to do so can generate feelings of humiliation and resentment, which in turn create fertile ground for radicalisation.”

Reflecting on Macron’s words, and on his government’s repeated warnings against “communitarianism” and “separatism”, Cottias argued that by omitting parts of the country’s history French officials were guilty of fostering the very divisions they denounce.

“Governments cannot advocate national unity and then pick and choose only the parts of history they are comfortable with,” she explained. “They are the ones who create ‘separatism’, by depriving parts of the population of the means to identify with the country and its history.”

The solution is not to erase history, but to “complete it”, she said, pointing to the case of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the 17th-century royal minister who wrote the so-called “Black Code” governing slaves in the French colonies.

Posthumously rebranded as an icon of the French Republic, the former first minister under “Sun King” Louis XIV is celebrated in France for an economic doctrine known as “colbertism”, which relies on the idea that state intervention is needed to serve the country’s economy and wealth. But he has also become a prime target of protesters who call for the removal of symbols of colonial-era oppression. 

In late June, activists scrawled graffiti on a large statue of Colbert located in front of the National Assembly, a prominent landmark overlooking the Seine River in Paris.

While she does not advocate the removal of statues, Cottias said slavery was indeed “at the heart” of Colbertism and “must be recognised as such”.

Slavery without the slaves

Facing Colbert’s statue, on the other side of the Seine, a memorial site commissioned by the French state will soon commemorate the victims of slavery. It will be stand in the Tuileries gardens, close to the site where slavery was first abolished in 1794, during the French Revolution, and then definitively banned in 1848, after Napoleon had reinstated it.

Both the location and the public call for tenders, which closes on Tuesday, place the monument firmly in the tradition of French Republican commemorations, Cottias noted.

Artists who submit proposals are required to engrave the full names of some 200,000 slaves who were emancipated and attributed a surname by France’s Second Republic following the second and final abolition in 1848. 

“Thus, the memorial for victims of slavery becomes a monument to the Republic,” Cottias said. “It celebrates the Republic that abolished slavery and emancipated slaves – and never mind all the others.”

According to the historian, the failure to adapt France’s official narrative to the changing times reflects a “singular lack of knowledge, reflection and imagination on the part of politicians, who don’t take these matters seriously”. 

Their stultified response flies in the face of current debates on the need to place the victims back at the heart of the narrative on slavery and abolition, and revisit the part played by European champions of abolition, such as Victor Schoelcher, a prominent French abolitionist who called for slave owners to be compensated.

“Think of the paradox,” Cottias added. “Even as people in the French Caribbean topple statues of Victor Schoelcher, in Paris we’re busy erecting ‘Schoelcherean’ monuments.”

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