President launches slavery remembrance foundation
National Day of Remembrance of the Slave Trade, Slavery and its Abolition – Speech by M. François Hollande, President of the Republic (excerpts)
Paris, 10 May 2017
10 May is a date that matters in our country’s history.
10 May – as those who established this day wanted – commemorates slavery, the slave trade and abolition.
It so happens that 10 May 2017 comes after a presidential election in which, last Sunday, French women and men expressed their commitment to the Republic, signalled their adherence to fundamental values, to those principles which unite us all and are called tolerance, respect, dignity, democracy and openness.
On this day, I wanted not merely to recall the history – it’s known – but to say that for a long time it was buried, concealed, no doubt because of a temptation to erase it.
It took time and many battles to ensure that this memory could, at last, be fully recognized by the Republic.
First of all there was the act of 20 June 1983, which established as a public holiday the date when abolition was proclaimed in every overseas department in 1848, because the people of Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Martinique, Réunion and Mayotte had never forgotten that highly emotional, exciting moment when their ancestors had immediately become French citizens, as we’ve just been reminded at the exhibition presented by the national committee.
In mentioning today the act of 1983, my thoughts go to Henri Emmanuelli, who died this year, because he was the Secretary of State for the Overseas Territories and championed the bill in the Senate and National Assembly.
In 1998, the Republic celebrated the 150th anniversary of abolition through the words of Lionel Jospin in Champagney. Champagney is the village in Haute-Saône where I went recently and whose inhabitants, in 1789, included in their register of grievances a call for the abolition of slavery.
At that moment too, society revived the memory of the crime and suffering it had caused. At the Sorbonne on 13 March 1998, the writers Edouard Glissant, Patrick Chamoiseau and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka issued a declaration “naming as crimes against humanity the slave trade and the slavery perpetrated in the Americas and the Indian Ocean”.
So, on 23 May 1998, thousands – and even tens of thousands – of descendants of slaves demonstrated in Paris to demand this recognition.
The movement continued; it was enshrined by the act of 21 May 2001, the Taubira law. The Republic then officially recognized slavery and the slave trade as crimes against humanity. (…)
The Republic recognized slavery and the slave trade as a crime against humanity, but there are still people who are surprised by that. And yet historians respond to them, recalling that in 1794 the legislature described slavery as a “crime of lese-humanity”, as if there were already a prefiguration of what this crime was, and of its recognition much later.
A crime [was] thus deemed so serious back then that offenders were automatically stripped of their citizenship and even their nationality, in accordance with the laws the Republic adopted after abolition in 1848. Things were strict back then. These laws were in force for 100 years. And the archives show that penalties were actually imposed. (…)
So the 2001 act was not a break with the past but a reminder. It did not dictate history, it passed it on.
That’s the purpose of the institutions it has created. I’m thinking in particular of the National Committee for the Remembrance and History of Slavery, now chaired by Frédéric Régent, who succeeds Maryse Condé, Françoise Verges and Myriam Cottias.
It was also necessary to improve and raise awareness, and that, among other things, was the fine initiative taken in 2015 with the Ministry of National Education and the Flamme de l’Egalité [Flame of Equality] competition, and we’ve just awarded the prizes for it.
Finally, I’m thinking of the day of 10 May, which Jacques Chirac was the first to preside over and which is now a fixture in the Republic’s calendar. And there’s also the act on real equality overseas, which we wanted, which the Minister promoted and which, today, has also become a major law of the Republic.
In 2006, in the speech he delivered on this very spot, Jacques Chirac said that “for this event to be a permanent fixture, there must now be a place of remembrance, for work and discussion”; he then tasked Edouard Glissant with imagining this place. And Edouard Glissant made proposals which, sadly, never became a reality.
But I didn’t want them to remain forgotten any longer.
First of all I gave the state’s support to the creation of the ACTe memorial [Caribbean Centre for Expressions and Memory of the Slave Trade and Slavery], that great achievement instigated and promoted by Victorin Lurel and the Guadeloupe region. I myself opened it on 10 May 2015 in the presence of many heads of state and government from Africa and the Caribbean, before visiting Haiti, because I also had to talk about slavery in Haiti and the responsibility France had held.
On the very land where slaves toiled, the ACTe memorial now offers all visitors a tour that reminds them of that heinous system which enabled some human beings to possess others, buy and sell them like personal property and exploit them like beasts of burden.
But the ACTe memorial tour also shows that from this atrocious crime emerged a mixed people, a new civilization, new ways of resisting and asserting oneself that engendered new, rich and cross-fertilized forms of art and culture. Thus, from the most despicable racism was born a form of universality, the phenomenon the poet [Edouard Glissant] calls “the creolization of the world”.
It remained to give this remembrance the national institution it lacked. That’s why I announced last year that I wanted France to have a foundation for the remembrance of the slave trade, slavery and its abolition.
Lionel Zinsou sketched out the competitions in a report he sent me and the Prime Minister on 8 March.
So at the Elysée Palace on 3 May 2017, I presided over the signature ceremony for the statutes of the public interest grouping that will prefigure the foundation. Its headquarters will be at the Hôtel de la Marine, the very place where Victor Schoelcher signed the decree to abolish slavery 169 years ago.
Many emotions, images and feelings arise within every elected president: what promises have been kept, what commitments honoured, and which ones will have to be monitored? And there are also dreams one can pursue which are not of a financial nature and which have not necessarily been central to an election campaign.
There are also those gestures and acts of remembrance that we must accomplish. And in 2012 I recalled the words of Edouard Glissant and what he conveyed to me, so that one day there would be a foundation for the remembrance of the slave trade, slavery and its abolition. And may I say that I’m proud that one of the last ceremonies, no doubt the last before I hand over all my powers – fear not, I won’t keep any! – and my responsibilities to Emmanuel Macron, President-elect, that this last ceremony should be to confirm a promise I made to all those who wanted this foundation. Well, today I’m proud there can be this foundation.
It will be chaired by Jean-Marc Ayrault, and I thank him for accepting this mission, and – alongside the state representatives, the financial institutions present here, the voluntary organizations and foundations – five qualified people will pursue this ambition with him: Doudou Diène, former head of the La route de l’esclave programme, Olivier Laouchez, chairman of a media group, Leila Sy, director, Françoise Verges and Lionel Zinsou, whom I thank again for preparing this mission.
The foundation’s role will be to work with all the organizations, all the stakeholders, who are keen to guarantee the remembrance of slavery and the slave trade and who will be involved, in one way or another, in its steering committee.
The foundation will work with the City of Paris on building a monument and a museum venue dedicated to that remembrance. And then, in 2018, the foundation will be officially created and will aim to be a bridge between Europe, America, Africa and the Indian Ocean.
It’s still France’s role to build bridges, get civilizations to meet one another and cultures to talk, and it’s still France’s role to be in the vanguard. It was the first country to abolish slavery, but there still needs to be a spirit of resistance and vigilance. The same France which may be glorious may at times fall back into its bad old ways. There are still temptations, there are still more or less dark forces trying to take France where it doesn’t want to go, but where it is at times frightened and seeks a destiny other than the one the Republic has decided for it.
So this is the France, this is the great France we must, you must, continue to reconcile, bring together, reunite, so that it always moves in the right direction.
We shall never be able to return the world to the way it was before slavery and the slave trade; Aimé Césaire said this, stating that what had happened was irreparable.
We don’t erase the past, we move beyond it.
So we’ve got to take action.
Firstly, by talking, making statements, speaking. When it comes to painful memories, truth liberates, and oblivion excludes; clear-sightedness increases stature, and denial causes division. That’s why we must go as far as possible in terms of recognition.
It’s what Jacques Chirac did at the Vel’d’Hiv (1) in 1995, it’s what Nicolas Sarkozy did in Constantine [Algeria] in 2007, it’s what I in turn did at the Vel’d’Hiv, in Drancy. It’s what I subsequently did in Thiaroye, Senegal, in memory of the Senegalese infantry corps massacred in 1944. It’s what I did in Papeete when I recognized the consequences of the French nuclear tests. It’s what I did in Montreuil-Bellay concerning people from the travelling community interned by France between 1940 and 1946, and who still hadn’t got the right to be registered citizens: they needed a card to move around. It’s what I did in Madagascar nearly 70 years after the insurrection on The Great Island was put down. It’s what I did on 19 March for the Algerian War. It’s also what I did, in recognition of France’s responsibility, with the national day for the Harkis, who were abandoned.
The aim isn’t to pit one suffering against another. It isn’t about one remembrance competing against another. There’s no hierarchy in terms of horror, suffering and barbarism. We aren’t here to make comparisons, we’re here to prevent the worst from happening again.
Taking action also means creating institutions, places, symbols for remembrance, like this day, which reminds us of our duties, against all ideologies which invent hierarchies of peoples, individuals, races – even though that word shouldn’t appear in the Constitution any more.
Yes, we must go on fighting against indifference, which is the worst evil – indifference to suffering, indifference to war, indifference to slaughter, indifference to dictatorships, at a time when, in the world today, children, women and men are deprived of freedom, made to work as prostitutes and given over to trafficking and exploitation on every continent.
Mr President of the Senate, you’ve just recalled what Boko Haram did, kidnapping girls, who were found – not all of them –, most of them hurt, and who mustn’t be discriminated against because of what they’ve suffered. Women who suffer violence mustn’t be viewed in terms of the violence they’ve suffered but because they have the right to dignity, equality and respect.
Yes, we must go on fighting against divisions which tear peoples apart – including here –, speeches which set people against each other, fundamentalists, obscurantists and people who want to split society into separate communities; there’s still a lot to do, Mr President.
This national day reminds us that France is really France only when it speaks for freedom, with the voice of those men whose names are engraved on the walls of the Pantheon – Louis Delgres, Toussaint Louverture, Victor Schoelcher, Aimé Césaire – and the voice of those women whose names history has forgotten, who resisted just as much, bravely, a disgraceful system which denied them any humanity. Long live these anonymous women who made France dignified.
Ladies and gentlemen,
For several weeks, many countries – most, actually – have had all eyes on France for the presidential election, because what happens in France always has a special resonance in the world, since France embodies an ideal, a way of life, a culture, because it spreads a message which isn’t different from others, but was expressed, perhaps, earlier than elsewhere, and with words we invented – human rights, equality.
We were the first nation to abolish slavery and win rights and freedoms; this is why it is more necessary than ever to build “the peace of remembrance”. Glissant wrote that we’ll enter – and he was talking nearly 20 years ago – a new archipelago where human communities will get to know one another, be equal to one another, and change through exchange, without being lost or losing their identities.
That’s the message of 10 May. Today is the day for remembering slavery, the slave trade and its abolition, but above all it’s the republican project, and this is still, and will always be, France’s message. It is now up to you, Mr President[-elect], cher Emmanuel, to spread this message here in France, in Europe and throughout the world.
Long live the Republic and long live France!./.
(1) The Vélodrome d’Hiver in Paris, to which thousands of Jews were taken after being rounded up by French police on 16 July 1942 for deportation.