Is memory enough? Remembering the racial legacies of slavery in France today

First published in openDemocracy (24 June 2015)

By Nicola Frith and Kate Hodgson

France is the only European slave-trading nation to legally recognise slavery and the slave trade as crimes against humanity, but questions of racial discrimination and colonial exploitation remain unresolved.

Europe’s role in slavery and the slave trade has long been a highly contentious subject, raising all kinds of issues that many in Europe would rather forget or ignore. However, this longstanding reluctance to talk about slavery and its legacies has been challenged in recent years by a frenzy of memorial activity that, on the surface at least, suggests a shared desire to confront the crimes of history. Despite these recent and ongoing efforts, there remains a widespread failure to engage with the ways in which past abuses are reflected in present problems, most notably racial discrimination and all of its attendant socio-economic and political implications.

The past seems to echo in the present on a daily basis, bringing with it reminders of unresolved social tensions that are rooted in the history of slavery and colonial rule. Even though France is the only European slave-trading nation to legally recognise slavery and the slave trade as crimes against humanity (2001), too little has been done to address the after-effects of slavery within republican society. All too often, deeply embedded forms of institutional racism are sidestepped by relying on appeals to ‘universal’ human rights. This approach fails to take into account the specific legacies of slavery and their ongoing impact on slave-descendant and black communities. This begs the question: what purpose do recent efforts to remember and commemorate the past serve if they fail to take account of these contemporary social issues?

Race in the French colonies

Race was central to constructing and maintaining slavery in France’s colonies, as it was across the colonial plantation world more generally. Key distinctions between subjects racialised as ‘white’ and ‘black’ shaped economic patterns, legal affairs and social relationships. Enslaved Africans were sought-after merchandise among the French merchants and plantation owners who made fortunes from the sale of what they crudely referred to as ‘ebony wood’. A legal text governing master-slave relations was created called the Black Code(1685). This outlawed relationships between free and enslaved persons, restricted the movements of slaves, and defined the harsh punishments to be used against slaves for any minor infringement or attempt to escape. The original colonial system placed a small white minority in control of a large but enslaved African majority, and was from the start a regime of terror, brutality and exploitation.

Yet the Black Code was not completely successful in its attempt to segregate and subjugate. This is evident in multiple forms of resistance, including poisoning, slave-led uprisings and ‘marronage’ (fugitive slaves). A growing free black and mixed-race population also began to emerge, posing a challenge to the stark, racialised binaries on which the colonial system was based. In response, additional colonial legislation was passed to restrict the activities of free people of colour. A total of 128 categories of skin colour were meticulously catalogued, from black to white, from ‘Sacatra’ to ‘Quarteron’.

The resentment provoked by this apartheid-esque system exploded with the arrival of French revolutionary ideas to the colonies, culminating in the mass revolt of the enslaved Africans in Saint Domingue. This became known as the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804). The French Atlantic world was transformed with the birth of Haiti as the first black-led, post-slave, post-colonial nation state. One of the most radical aspects of Haiti’s independence was the article in the 1805 constitution that abolished distinctions of skin colour, with all Haitians henceforth identified as black. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the constitution’s creator, did this to help unify a nation still deeply marked by the structural racism of its French origins.

The French colonial bureaucracy took the opposite stance after it abolished slavery in the rest of France’s plantation colonies in 1848. In contrast to Haiti’s assertion of blackness, French republicanism embraced a ‘neutral’ identity based on the idea of assimilation to French cultural values and a desire to forget the slave past. This rhetoric of neutrality towards racial difference masked the reality of continued exploitation, including forced labour, indenture, and the use of detention centres. These and other practices effectively created a two-tier system of national identity based upon racial divisions. Numerous individuals who grew up during this period have testified to the profoundly alienating effects of a colonial education that worked to deny their history and erase their identity.

Memorials amidst continued conflict

Intellectuals and activist groups have, since the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in 1998, increasingly challenged the legacies of racism in France. In turn, this has forced the state to become more aware of the importance of engaging with the history and memory of France’s involvement in slavery.

Recent years have seen a spate of memorial projects funded or endorsed by the state. These have included the overhaul of regional museums in slave ports, the declaration of May 10 as the national day for commemorating slavery, the inauguration of large-scale memorial projects (including the new €8 million Mémorial ACTe in the overseas department of Guadeloupe, opening in July 2015), and the inclusion of slavery within the school curriculum. In addition to celebrating the legal abolition of slavery, these approaches to remembrance also pay homage to those who suffered most. As such, they aim to reconstruct identities that have been obliterated through a process of enslavement and colonisation, and work towards the creation of a more inclusive society.

But just how effective have these commemorative practices been in bringing about social and institutional change? If we take the recent example of the general strikes in 2009, when France’s current overseas departments (and former sugar colonies) of Martinique and Guadeloupe in the Caribbean were brought to a standstill by protests against the escalating cost of living, we might well conclude that there has been little discernable change. Representing the majority Afro-descendent population, strike leaders denounced the French state for its exploitative and neo-colonial politics, pointing the finger at the minority white or ‘Béké’ population that continues to hold economic (and by proxy political) power over the islands, just like their slave-owning ancestors.

The enduring issues raised by these strikes are echoed in the rise of reparations movements. The Representative Council for Black Associations (Paris), the International Movement for Reparations (Martinique) and the International Committee of Black Peoples (Guadeloupe) have all called upon the French state to better acknowledge the legacies of slavery and the associated inequalities found in society today. They demand reparations as atonement for both. Such a position resonates strongly in the wider Caribbean community, which created the Caricom Reparations Commission in 2012 to seek reparative justice from Europe’s former slave powers. Importantly, it is not just slavery but the wider colonial past that is under fire. Black rights groups in France are also suing the French state for the use of forced labour in the 1920s to construct the Congo-Ocean railway line, which resulted in some 17,000 deaths.

The slave past thus continues to exist just beneath the surface of public consciousness. It is ever ready to push through a rhetoric of remembrance that claims to have fully embraced history, but has not yet resulted in meaningful change to the racial, economic and political structure of society. Rather than asking whether acts of state remembrance are capable of affecting such a deep and necessary societal transformation—when clearly they are not—perhaps we should ask instead whether memory can ever be enough to challenge the legacies of slavery.

Nation states are doomed to remember selectively for fear of rocking the shaky foundations of national cohesion. The past is ‘domesticated’ to create a story of belonging that elides the socio-economic fallout faced by slave-descendant and black communities. To move beyond memory would mean coming to terms with the links between slavery and colonialism, and engaging directly with their continuing discriminatory effects on society today. In other words, moving beyond memory means understanding its limitations and embracing new and more radical forms of engagement that push us away from the passivity of recognition and towards real justice and reparation.

This article draws upon material from Nicola Frith and Kate Hodgson’s new co-edited collection, At the Limits of Memory: Legacies of Slavery in the Francophone World.