Speech by M. Jacques Chirac, President of the Republic, at the reception in honour of the Slavery Remembrance Committee (excerpts)

Paris, 30 January 2006

(...) In the history of mankind, slavery is a wound.

A tragedy which has bruised every continent.

An abomination perpetrated, for several centuries, by Europeans through an unspeakable trade between Africa, the Americas and the islands of the Indian Ocean.

A slave traffic we have to see for what it was: villagers living in fear, kidnapped en masse, deprived of their identities, torn from their families and their culture. So many men and women held captive, crammed into boats where more than one in ten died. So many men and women sold as cattle and exploited in inhumane conditions! (...)

Most European powers engaged in the slave trade. For several centuries, they treated human beings as goods. In France, the Black Code, promulgated in 1685, defined the slave as “personal property”.

Slavery fuelled racism. It was when attempting to justify the unjustifiable that people constructed racist theories, i.e. the revolting assertion of the existence of “races” which were intrinsically inferior to the others.

Racism, wherever it stems from, is a crime of both heart and head. It degrades, soils, destroys. Racism is one of the reasons why the memory of slavery is a still open wound for many of our fellow citizens.

In the Republic, we can make our history an open book, especially since the Republic was built with the abolitionist movement.

First to fight slavery were the slaves themselves. Revolts were frequent, and put down severely. Later, there was Commandant Delgrès, a soldier in the Republican army, who proclaimed on 10 May 1802 that he wanted "to live free or die"; there was Toussaint-Louverture, who created the conditions for the independence of Saint Domingue, which became Haiti; there were the mulattos Solitude, Cimendef and Dimitile, symbolizing the runaway slaves. These names, these destinies, extraordinary, often tragic, too few French know them. Yet they are an integral part of France’s history.

Very early on, there were the first stirrings of conscience. A few Europeans had risen up against slavery. In France, those who, even before the Republic, had the Republican spirit, took up the battle for emancipation.

It is to the honour of the First Republic that in 1794 it abolished slavery in the French colonies. Restored by the Consulate in 1802, it was, on Victor Schœlcher’s initiative, definitively abolished by the Second Republic on 27 April 1848,

We have to say, with pride: from the outset, the Republic has been incompatible with slavery. The nation’s elected representatives embraced this historical tradition when in 2001 they made France the first country in the world to make slavery a crime against humanity.

The 1848 abolition was a decisive moment in our history: one of those which forged our idea of our country as the land of human rights.

But going beyond its abolition, today the whole memory of slavery, long repressed, must enter our history: a memory which must genuinely be shared.

We must do this to honour the memory of all the victims of this shameful traffic, and thus give them back their dignity. We must do it to recognize in full the contribution, substantial contribution the slaves and their descendents made to our country. Since out of the terrible history of slavery, that long succession of suffering and shattered destinies, was also born a great culture. And a literature which is very probably one of the best parts of today’s French literature: you are, chère Maryse Condé, cher Edouard Glissant among its most distinguished representatives. And I’m also thinking, of course, of Aimé Césaire and so many others.

Ladies and gentlemen,

A country’s greatness lies in its acceptance of its whole history. With its glorious pages, but also its share of darkness. Our history is that of a great nation. Let’s look at it with pride. See it for what it was. This is how a people come together, become more united, stronger. This is what remembrance signifies: unity and national cohesion, love of our country and confidence in what we are.

This is why it is my wish that, starting this year, metropolitan France honour the memory of the slaves and commemorate the abolition of slavery. As your report proposes, on completion of an extremely thorough effort to which I want to pay tribute, it will be on 10 May, anniversary of the Senate’s unanimous adoption, in a second and final reading of the Act making the slave trade and slavery a crime against humanity.

No date could, of course, possibly satisfy everyone. But what is of paramount importance is that this day exists. It will not replace the dates already existing in every overseas department. On 10 May, from this year on, commemorations will be organized in the places of great significance in the history of the slave trade and slavery in metropolitan France, overseas France and, I hope, on the African continent. Your Committee will have to ensure this.

Aside from this commemoration, the study of slavery must be allocated its proper place in the National Curriculum in primary school, collèges [approximately 11-15 years] and lycées [approximately 15-18 years]. Moreover, books, objects and archives relating to the slave trade and slavery which constitute an exceptionally rich heritage will have to be preserved, used to the full and exhibited to the public in our museums.

We must also increase our knowledge of this tragedy. Even if it in no way diminishes the European countries’ responsibility, the establishment of the slave trade, as your report clearly showed, required not only an organizational network but also active links in the lands the slaves came from or in neighbouring countries. There was slavery before the slave trade. There was slavery after it. Enhancing our knowledge will enable us to establish the truth and put an end to pointless argument. So a research centre will be created for this purpose.

And of course slavery must be remembered in a place open to all researchers and the public. I have decided to entrust to M. Edouard Glissant, one of our greatest contemporary writers, a man of memory and bearer of a universal message, the chairmanship of a taskforce which will study the practicalities of setting up a National Centre devoted to the slave trade, slavery and their abolition. I thank him for being good enough to accept the task. The Slavery Remembrance Committee, chère Maryse Condé, will of course be closely involved in this mission.

Finally, the battle against slavery is today’s battle. It’s one for France and La Francophonie [international Francophone organization]. Today forced labour exists in one form or another on almost every continent: according to the United Nations, over 20 million people are victims of it. How at the dawn of the twenty-first century can we tolerate the existence in the world of generation after generation of families enslaved by debt? So many children working, often in appalling conditions. So many young girls being sold by their families to become unpaid domestics or given over to prostitution?

There has been progress. But the task remains immense: France is and must be at the forefront of this battle, a battle for human rights. In order to fight not only these relics of slavery, but also its resurgence in the context of global economic competition, we need to increase cooperation between northern and southern countries. Growth must speed up, not be a brake on social progress. We also have to get the relevant international organizations, in particular the International Labour Organization and World Trade Organization, to work more closely together. International trade law can’t ignore the basic principles of human rights.

Finally, we must ensure that when Western companies invest in poor or emerging countries they respect the basic principles of labour law as enshrined in international law. This is why I intend proposing a European and international initiative. It must be possible to take to court companies thought to have knowingly resorted to forced labour and for those found guilty to be sentenced by national courts, even for offences committed abroad.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Slavery and human trafficking are an indelible stain on mankind. The Republic can be proud of the battles it has won against this ignominy. By commemorating this history, France is showing the way. It is to her honour, demonstrating her greatness and strength. Thank you./.

Published on 17/02/2006

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