The 10 May National Memorial Day for Slavery and Its Abolitions: A Gestation of Compromise?

Since 2006, the date of 10 May has been marked by different French governments as the National Memorial Day for Slavery and Its Abolitions. The annual celebrations have often consisted in a state ceremony at the Jardins de Luxembourg in Paris as well as a myriad of activities around the country. They thus served as a consensual symbol for the republic’s commitment to commemorating its role in the enslavement of Africans together with the turbulent history of its abolitions. The process of creating this memorial day was not a smooth one, however. Rather, it was the result of Antillean mobilisations to resist the republican tradition of abolitionism and demand state recognition of its responsibility for colonial enslavement of Africans.

Official ceremony in commemoration of slavery and its abolition, held in Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, on May 12, 2013.
Official ceremony in commemoration of slavery and its abolition, held in Pierrefitte-sur-Seine, on May 12, 2013. Source : Wikipedia
Statue of Victor Schoelcher in Cayenne, French Guiana.
Statue of Victor Schoelcher in Cayenne, French Guiana. Source : Wikipedia
Summary

Remembering Abolitions, Remembering Slavery

The creation of the 10 May Memorial Day for Slavery and Its Abolitions in 2006 marked the French state’s integration of the enslavement of Africans within the French national narrative. For a long time, however, official remembrance of slavery in France applied mainly to remembrance of its abolition. After the second abolition of slavery in French colonies in 1848, on the one hand, consecutive French republics mainly supported a state narrative of silence over slavery for the sake of turning the page and ‘moving on’. On the other hand, and particularly after the 1920s, governments developed various rituals that commemorated the republic’s benevolent act through focus on the figure of the abolitionist Victor Schoelcher. These rituals were far less visible in the French metropole than in France’s Antillean colonies—and later dependencies—especially in the DOMs of Martinique, Guadeloupe, Reunion Island and French Guyana. There, statues to Schoelcher embodied the paternalistic connection between France and its colonies. After 1983, schools and other state institutions further celebrated Schoelcher following a law that fixed the day of the Second Abolition as a Memorial Day. Simultaneously, however, challenging the discourse of ‘Schoelcherisme’ became central to Caribbean movements that struggled against French control. These began with literary works such as those of Édouard Glissant that condemned republican paternalism, but were also reflected in independentist-nationalist movements as late as the 1980s. Yet, as the DOMs settled for departmentalisation and later with the failure of independentist movements, challenges from the Antilles did not trickle down to public consciousness in the hexagon.

The first initiatives in the hexagon that aimed to commemorate the role of enslavement of Africans in French history emanated from local groups in port cities, especially the western city of Nantes. In the 1980s and 1990s, groups of local history-geography teachers and Caribbean activists made demands to mark the city’s history of growth through the slave trade within a process of urban reinvention. National politics began addressing the issue following actions by Antillean activists in the capital. Most notably, a Paris-based movement led by former Guadeloupian independentists Serge and Viviane Romana was responsible for the first large-scale mobilisation in 1998 that put slavery on the national radar and demanded reckoning with the enslavement of Africans in French colonies.

In the mid-1990s, the Romanas reformulated their activism for hexagonal Antillean communities and focused increasingly on the need to acknowledge historical enslavement as the link between the French Republic and its Caribbean citizens. Angered at the paternalistic nature of the planned government commemoration of the 150th anniversary for the (second) abolition of slavery in 1998, the Romanas called Antillean grassroots organisations to unite and mobilise in a ‘silent protest’. The large crowds that marched through the streets on 23 May convinced Antillean lawmakers that the memory of slavery was a priority for their constituencies.

Subsequently, Antillean MPs began pushing for the creation of a legal basis for the commemoration of slavery and recognition of the transatlantic slave trade as a crime against humanity. After three Communist bills were shut down by the Socialist-led Jospin government, Christiane Taubira the young, newly-elected Socialist MP from Guyana, was chosen to lead a government mission of appeasement to synthesise the three bills into a single government text. Taubira first presented a new bill to the National Assembly on 18 February 1999. After several readings in both houses and intense internal negotiations, its final version passed unanimously on 10 May 2001. The law that would come to be known as the Taubira Law recognised the status of transatlantic slave trade as a crime against humanity, stipulated that school curricula and research programmes addressed the slave trade ‘adequately’, called for international cooperation on the issue of the commemoration of slavery and, lastly, prescribed the creation of an expert committee to institutionalise the commemoration of the slave trade and its abolitions.

From the CPME to 10 May

In 2004, the Chirac government followed through on one of the Taubira Law’s articles and launched the Comité pour la mémoire de l’esclavage (CPME). Novelist Maryse Condé spearheaded the committee of twelve experts at the time. Its other members were mostly high-profile academics like Françoise Vergès and Nelly Schmidt, but also Caribbean activists among whom Henriette Dorion-Sébéloué, President of the Union des Guyanais et des amis de la Guyane, and most notably Serge Romana, who had by that time established a reputation as France’s grassroots authority on the memory of slavery after founding the association Comité de marche 98 to continue what had been started with the unexpected success of the protest against the government’s commemoration in 1998.  The committee’s main objective consisted in finding a date for the establishment of a memorial day to commemorate slavery and its abolitions in France. The government’s brief specified the date needed to relate—at least loosely—to aspects of both the history of the slave trade and its abolitions and simultaneously prompt national consensus, while avoiding being too closely connected to any single community or region.

As the CPME launched a series of consultations to take stock of the commemorational landscape of slavery and search for a date, it struggled with finding an appropriate symbol that would reconcile the state’s desire to take charge of the commemorative narrative and Antillean demands for recognition. It found the two first obvious dates, those of the two abolitions of slavery in France, symbolically problematic, as the choice of any abolition date would have perpetuated an abolitionist narrative that overshadowed the motivation of commemorating the crime of the transatlantic slave trade. 10 May, the date that eventually became France’s national commemoration day, was not initially included in the list of possible dates. It was suggested during a consultation with Christiane Taubira as a day in which ‘the elected of the Republic adopted unanimously a law that was simultaneously historical and universalist’. The members of the committee were convinced of the merits of adopting a date that symbolised the Republic’s recognition of the crime as well as the struggle of descendants of slaves to make their voices heard. While it was stately and republican in character, as it celebrated the Republic’s recognition of its commitment to the Rights of Man, it also claimed the mantel of radicalism as the result of an Antillean struggle against the structures of the republic.

On 30 January 2006, President Jacques Chirac signed the decree that officialised the CPME’s proposal to turn 10 May into a National Day of Memories of the Slave Trade, Slavery and their Abolitions. Its first commemoration on 10 May 2006 became one of the last actions of a president otherwise associated with French memory politics and the epithet ‘devoir de mémoire’, or the state’s duty to remember its victims. The creation of this memorial day, however, did not mark the end of Caribbean citizens’ struggle to secure memorial justice. The gestation process of 10 May both revealed and created conflicts between associations, politicians and academics in France’s memory landscape that have since affected the French debate about the memory of slavery with questions about what commemoration serves and for whom. Simultaneously, 10 May has provided a space for state actors to acknowledge the role of the enslavement of Africans in French history while continuously imbuing this acknowledgment with meaning. As with all commemorations, this meaning has been changed through further struggles by state and non-state actors alike.

To quote from this article

Itay Lotem , « The 10 May National Memorial Day for Slavery and Its Abolitions: A Gestation of Compromise? », Encyclopédie d'histoire numérique de l'Europe [online], ISSN 2677-6588, published on 30/06/22, consulted on 07/08/2022. Permalink : https://ehne.fr/en/node/21888

Bibliography

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Frith, Nicola, Hodgson, Kate, At the Limits of Memory: Legacies of Slavery in the Francophone World (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2015).

Lotem, Itay, The Memory of Colonialism in Britain and France: The Sins of Silence (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021).

Vergès, Françoise, La mémoire enchaînée. Questions sur l’esclavage (Paris : Albin Michel, 2006).