On May 23, the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Colonial Slavery is celebrated in France. Descendants of people enslaved by the French Empire fought to establish this event 25 years ago, and today they are still fighting for a national memorial to honor their ancestors.
It has been 175 years since the final abolition of slavery in France. But for the descendants of hundreds of thousands of enslaved men and women in France’s former colonies, history is not far away.
“My grandfather was the son of two slaves. I am only the third generation of my family not in slavery,” says Emmanuel Gardien, whose ancestors were taken from Africa to work in the then French colony of Guadeloupe.
“It’s a very recent, complicated and painful history for those of us descended from slaves.”
Gordien is the president of the March 1998 Committee, CM98, which was founded after the landmark demonstration calling for the French state to recognize its history of slavery.
This march, which brought 40,000 people to the streets of Paris on May 23, 1998, helped the French government recognize the slave trade as a crime against humanity, which it did in 2001.
And in 2017, France declared May 23 a national day of remembrance for the victims of colonial slavery: the more than one million people who were transported from Africa to French colonies and the generations of people who were born from them before the trade was finally abolished in 1848. .
Today, four of these former colonies – Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guiana and Reunion – are French overseas departments, meaning that thousands of French citizens living today are descended from people who were enslaved by France.
Day of slaves and their descendants
In fact, France has two days to commemorate slavery. The second, on May 10, commemorates the slave trade, slavery and its abolition.
But that alone was not enough for Guardian and other descendants of the enslaved.
“With any crime against humanity, you always have to honor the victims,” he told RFI, stressing that both days should receive equal recognition.
This did not always happen. While on May 10 it is usual for senior members of the French government to lay wreaths in a solemn ceremony in Paris, on May 23 the celebration is generally low-key and led mainly by the descendants themselves.
Of course, this does not make them any less significant – if anything, it is the opposite.
In Paris, today’s celebrations will see people lay flowers for their enslaved ancestors at the French Foreign Ministry as part of an annual celebration called “Limyè ba Yo,” a Creole phrase roughly meaning “let’s put them in the spotlight.”
“What amazes me more and more is that we see families coming in with young children and telling them, ‘Put a flower,'” Gordien says.
“Maybe they don’t quite understand why they do it, but they see that around them they are crying, laughing, thinking, they see the same people who also lay flowers.
“And it allows them to see that they have their own identity and culture within national boundaries.”
A call to remembrance
But CM98 is also pushing for a permanent memorial to the victims of the French slave trade, which the association wants to see prominently displayed in central Paris.
President Emmanuel Macron expressed support for the idea when it was proposed in 2018, but none of the designs met CM98’s main requirement that the memorial include the names of the estimated 200,000 people formally freed in France’s Caribbean and Indian Ocean colonies as a result of the abolition 1848. .
The project has since stalled, something Gordien hopes to change.
“France calls itself a country of human rights – and it is true that in 1789 a law was passed which states that people are born free and equal before the law. In 1789. Except that in 1848, 59 years later, my ancestors were still enslaved by France,” he says.
For the first time, France abolished slavery in its colonies in 1794, and in 1802 it was restored.
“By creating a memorial, the French Republic can say, ‘yes, there was a failure,'” says the Guardian. “And all the people who were enslaved because of France, putting all their names on the memorial, for me – and for France – it’s a great symbolic reparation.”
National history, family stories
In addition to the public memorial, his community works year-round to encourage descendants of enslaved people to learn about their ancestors.
It helps them trace their family history, which is often patchy due to a lack of records – or generations of silence.
“I never learned about slavery in school,” Gordien says. “Nobody talked about it.”
He only knew his history through his father: unusually for the time, he told the story of his own grandfather, who arrived in Guadeloupe as a slave and later became free.
However, his mother never spoke about it. “The story is too painful, too shameful,” Gordien says.
He was only recently able to fill in both sides of his family tree; he counted a total of 32 enslaved women and men among his direct ancestors.
“They are not even slaves to us anymore,” he says of himself and other descendants. “They’re just relatives—relatives we learn about and learn to love.”
Gordien sees more and more young people coming to his society in search of their ancestors.
While what they find may be upsetting, “I can see it reassuring people,” he says.
“They feel it’s easier for them to live with that history.”