Tuesday, May 31, 2016

France's Infelicitous History

"Slavery was abolished, and the old slaves became citizens. They even elected deputies. But the plantation economy continued with the same masters, who then became employers."
Frederic Regent , expert historian, French slave trade

"It's from slavery that we have the discrimination we have today and the racism we see in France today. It's not yet totally done in France. France has many, many institutional links to slavery."
Myriam Cottias, historian, Representative Council of France's Black Associations

"I wish to give to France an institution [major foundation in creation of a slavery memorial and museum] it still lacks, a foundation for the memory of the slave trade, slavery and its abolition."
French President Francois Hollande, Paris

"[The historical lack of a French institution dedicated in memory of black slavery rankles]: It clearly means that black lives do not matter."
"What was different between that [continuation of the plantation economy using former slaves as 'workers'] and slavery? Nothing."
"Black anti-Semitism is growing in France, and it's not exactly the same as the other types. It's usually rooted in the comparison between the two memories."
Louis-Georges Tin, president, Representative Council of France's Black Associations

Paris’s only significant slavery memorial — a bronze statue of broken chains — sits in front of an ornate building once owned by the Bank of France. (James McAuley/The Washington Post)

The complexity of racial discrimination and its variants, along with the residual effects on the psyches of survivors, and the reluctant acknowledgement of its painful, shameful historical realities has consequences that while now evident, might not have been imagined. Take, for example, France coming to terms with its inexplicably official catering to Nazi Germany and suppressing its cooperation with Germany in the Holocaust.

Official France finally forced itself to admit its shame and produce an apology for participation in Nazi genocide carried out during the Second World War by Vichy France which saw no reason not to aid in the deportation of Jews to eastern European concentration and death camps. Anti-Semitism was alive and well in the France of that era, and it was of great assistance to the Third Reich in its reach toward the Final Solution.

So while there exists a Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery in Nantes on the Atlantic coast which once represented France's major slave-trading hub, French blacks feel this is a wholly incomplete admission of shame and guilt in being an important cog in the European slave trade, bringing black Africans to Europe as slaves and using them for economic production gain. "France has a memory of abolition, but not of slavery", commented Mr. Tin.

Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery, Nantes, France

France had been one of the major European slave-trading nations, fully engaged in enslaving and selling an estimated 1.4-million people during the 18th and 19th centuries. It was in 1848 that slavery was officially outlawed in France. But in the interim the country's colonial conquests in Africa, in Southeast Asia and in the Caribbean made it extremely wealthy with slave labour generating products sold elsewhere in Europe.

France was a laggard in outlawing slavery, behind Canada and other British territories, but a generation before the United States took that humane step. And while the thought of liberation was empowering the reality was somewhat other, for blacks in French territories overseas still worked at the same plantations doing the same labour, but as 'free' men and women, not slaves, although the conditions were precisely the same.

France created a Holocaust Memorial Museum and research centre in 2005 and installed black plaques at most of the sites known to have been distinguished by the arrests of Jewish children in Nazi-occupied France, and all with the enthusiastic assistance of French officialdom who were sometimes more heartless and savage in their treatment of Jews than the German officers they were so eager to serve.

Because the French shame has finally been officially recognized and repented, hostile resentment arose against Jews from blacks in the minority communities, leaving the impression with French blacks that their suffering was less important.That comparison, it is argued, is behind the performances of French-Cameroonian comedian Dieudonne M'Bala M'Bala whose anti-Semitism
has become legendary.

In an odd exchange of sensibilities French Jewish organizations and community leaders have been supportive of the movement for a slavery museum and foundation, joining with Tin's campaign from the outset. "The two histories come from different epochs, and they don't have the same places in society. But of course it's important to improve the public spaces", commented journalist Antoine Spire, a leader for the cause of a foundation. 

Wall of the Righteous, Paris. Photo GLK
Wall of the Righteous, Paris. Photo GLK 

On the opposite side of the Allée des Justes can be seen a plaque indicating that more than 11,000 Jewish children were sent to the camps from France, including more than 500 from this, the 4th, arrondissement.

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