On 23 May, France marks a national day for the victims of colonial slavery. Descendants of people enslaved by the French empire fought to establish the event 25 years ago, and today they’re still fighting for a national memorial in their ancestors’ honour.
It is 175 years since France abolished slavery for good. But for the descendants of hundreds of thousands of enslaved men and women in France’s former colonies, the history is anything but distant.
“My grandfather was the son of two slaves. I’m only the third generation of my family that isn’t enslaved,” says Emmanuel Gordien, whose ancestors were taken from Africa to work in what was then the French colony of Guadeloupe.
“It’s a very recent, complicated and painful story for those of us who are descended from slaves.”
Gordien is president of the ‘98 March Committee, CM98, which was founded in the wake of a landmark demonstration calling on the French state to recognise its history of slavery.
That march, which brought as many as 40,000 people onto the streets of Paris on 23 May 1998, helped push the French government to recognise the slave trade as a crime against humanity, which it did in 2001.
And in 2017, France declared 23 May a national day of remembrance for the victims of colonial slavery: more than one million people who were trafficked from Africa to French colonies, and generations of people born from them, before the trade was abolished definitively in 1848.
Today, four of those former colonies – Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guiana and Réunion – are overseas departments of France, which means that thousands of French citizens living today are descended from people who France enslaved.
A day for slaves and their descendants
France in fact has two days to commemorate slavery. The other, on 10 May, memorialises the slave trade, slavery and abolition.
But for Gordien and other descendants of enslaved people, that alone wasn’t enough.
“With any crime against humanity, it’s the victims that you have to honour, always,” he told RFI, stressing that both days should get the same recognition.
That hasn’t always happened. While 10 May typically sees the top members of the French government laying wreaths at a solemn ceremony in Paris, the commemorations on 23 May tend to be lower profile and driven chiefly by descendants themselves.
Of course, that doesn’t make them less meaningful – if anything, it’s the opposite.
In Paris, today’s celebrations will see people lay flowers for their enslaved ancestors at the Ministry of Overseas France, as part of an annual celebration named “Limyè ba Yo” – a Creole phrase that means roughly “let’s put them in the spotlight”.
“What strikes me more and more is that we see families who come with small kids and say to them, ‘you lay the flower’,” says Gordien.
“Maybe they don’t entirely understand why they’re doing it, but they see that around them people are crying, laughing, reflecting, and they see other people like them who are also laying flowers.
“And that allows them to see that they have an identity and culture of their own within the national one.”
Call for a memorial
But CM98 has also been pushing for a permanent memorial to the victims of the French slave trade, which the association wants to see given a prominent position 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 central demand: that the memorial should include the names of the roughly 200,000 people officially freed in France’s Caribbean and Indian Ocean colonies under the 1848 abolition.
The project has since stalled, which Gordien is hoping to change.
“France calls itself the country of human rights – and it’s true that in 1789, a law was passed declaring 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.
France abolished slavery in its colonies a first time in 1794 – only to reinstate it in 1802.
“By creating a memorial, the French Republic can say: ‘yes – there was a failure’,” says Gordien. “And all the people who were enslaved by France’s fault, by putting all their names on a memorial, that for me – and for France – it’s a major symbolic reparation.”
National history, family stories
Beyond public remembrance, his association works year round to encourage the descendants of enslaved people to get to know their ancestors.
It helps them trace their family history, which is often patchy due to missing records – or generations of silence.
“I never learned about slavery at school,” says Gordien. “Nobody talked about it.”
He was only aware of his history thanks to his father: unusually for the time, he shared the story of his own grandfather, who had arrived in Guadeloupe a slave and later became free.
His mother, however, never once 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; in total, he counted 32 enslaved women and men among his direct ancestors.
“They’re not even slaves to us anymore,” he says of himself and other descendants. “They’re just relatives – relatives who we’re learning about and learning to love.”
Gordien sees more and more young people coming to his association in search of their own forebears.
While what they find can be upsetting, “what I see is that it soothes people”, he says.
“They feel like they can live more easily with this history.”