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Editorial

ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Dans le même bateau ?

by Maurice Ulrich

All in the Same Boat? Why Sarkozy’s Attitude to Remembering the Slave Trade Should Make Us See Red

Translated Tuesday 15 May 2007, by Carol Gullidge

At the recent celebrations for the anniversary of France’s abolition of slavery, Nicolas Sarkozy’s inflammatory remarks on historic memory provided fuel for the fire of confrontation. L’Humanité urges the left to get back on its feet and fight back.

In Nantes - one of the hubs of the triangular slave trade - the new museum of the city’s history is displaying account books, meticulously kept by its wealthy merchants. In perfectly ruled columns, the trade figures can be read: black men, black women, and black boys and girls, with each one’s respective price and state of health. You see the ships’ plans, together with the most efficient method of piling the slaves on board; you see the leg irons, and iron collars with their inward-pointing metal teeth...

Slavery was an abomination. On the 10th of this month, we commemorated its abolition for the second time, and so we should. For, if there were traders, and if there were whole towns that lived off the slave trade, very soon there were also men who stood up for emancipation. Symbolic of these is Toussaint Louverture, who liberated the slaves of Santo Domingo before dying in a French prison in 1803. Meanwhile, Napoleon, sensitive to pressure from the big estate owners and merchants, had re-established slavery in the Caribbean. There always have been – or almost always – those who spoke up for abolition. In Korea, from the 9th Century. In Europe, with the emperor Charles V, who banned it in 1526. Pope Paul III outlawed it in 1537. Abbé Grégoire and Condorcet obtained its abolition during the French Revolution, but it wasn’t to come into force until 1848, with Victor Schoelcher’s decree of 27 April.

Why remind us of this? Because slavery is not the sort of historic fact that everyone acknowledges, unless or until we suddenly grasp the monstrosity of it. It was the stake in ideological battles over powerful and base interests. Even today, in the towns affected, some of those whose fortunes are linked to the slave trade experience problems with seeing the past brought to light. Acknowledging it isn’t the same as taking retroactive legal proceedings. It merely shows the extent of what is called the study of historical memory, and which still remains to be done. The memory of slavery ought to become a common moral property of mankind.

Two French presidents – or almost, since the second one is not yet in office – went to the commemoration ceremony at the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris on 10 May. The future president came out of his “retreat” in Malta [on a billionaire’s yacht], for which he made it clear that he has no intention of “apologizing, lying, or hiding his face”. From the first words he uttered on Sunday evening, we know that he proclaimed his wish to finish with “repentance”, and with “the battle of memories that fosters hatred of others”. But can there be a battle of memories if the memory itself is the subject of a collective study? A matter of collective responsibility. The term repentance does of course smack a teeny bit of masochism, but should we, for all that, relinquish efforts to establish and recognize responsibilities? Because they did exist, and this should not be swept under the carpet. In history, everything isn’t equal. Spartacus and Crassus aren’t in the same boat. Or should that be the same yacht?

In fact, Nicolas Sarkozy was not thinking of slavery in particular. At his second major meeting, in Montpellier, the same terms were addressed to the more right-wing electors. These words were levelled at the colonial wars, and the wars of Indo-China and Algeria. Because, for Nicolas Sarkozy, those dirty wars are part of the greatness of France, just as May ’68 contributed to its downfall. In every respect, Nicolas Sarkozy wants a right totally devoid of hang-ups. His stay in Malta is in keeping with this desire. This is rupture from now on, and it’s already violent. Confronted with this, we need a strong left and one that believes in itself as such, the bearer of real changes and ready to be rebuilt.


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