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Colonialism: ‘France has to acknowledge the contradictions in its history’, Ayrault

By Nicolas Michel
Posted on Monday, 6 July 2020 12:25

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Jean-Marc Ayrault, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, currently chairs the Foundation for the Memory of Slavery in Nantes, France. (Jean Claude MOSCHETTI/REA)

Currently head of France’s Foundation for the Commemoration of Slavery (Fondation pour la mémoire de l'esclavage), the former French foreign minister revisits the debate raging over France’s role in the slave trade and the reappraisal of its historical figures.

Jean-Marc Ayrault, who has been both Prime Minister of France and Mayor of the city of Nantes, currently chairs the Foundation for the Memory of Slavery, an organisation initiated by former President François Hollande.

Ayrault, a defender of the Taubira Law of 21 May 2001 recognising the slave trade and the institution of slavery as crimes against humanity, thinks that France could go further down this road and take more responsibility for the destructive periods in its past.

In a recent editorial, you suggested that the name of the Colbert room at the French National Assembly be changed. Why Colbert?

Jean-Marc Ayrault: I went to high school at Lycée Jean-Baptiste-Colbert, in Cholet, France. Throughout my school years, no one ever taught me about Colbert. His story wasn’t mentioned in the school curriculum.

Colbert is a major historical figure, but who was taught that he was asked to implement the Code noir (Black Code) decree – in a country that had abolished serfdom with the 11 July 1315 Louis X le Hutin decision – to justify the use of slavery in the colonies?

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The Code noir institutionalised slavery and wrote it into modern French law. That’s significant! On top of that, the first article of the code is antisemitic, as it says that all Jews are to be excluded from the colonies!

I don’t recommend removing his statue or that of other figures decorating the National Assembly, but I did let the institution know that a different name than his could be found for a room in which law is created. It was named after Colbert in 1932 and a wing of the Ministry of the Economy and Finance has borne his name since 1989… that wasn’t exactly 300 years ago!

What was your intention?

I want institutions to talk about every aspect of our history. If they don’t want to change the name of the room, then they at least need to provide young visitors with a basic explanation when they visit the National Assembly on a class trip. People have the right to know, when they walk by the Colbert statue or enter the Colbert room, that he was an important minister and civil servant, but that he is also the reason why the Code noir was written.

Are you in favour of taking down statues and changing street names?

I have never said that I wanted to erase Colbert from France’s history; of course that isn’t the case! I really don’t align myself with the approach of those who remove statues and then throw them into a river.

The destruction of the statues of Schœlcher in Martinique shocked me, even though such acts can be understood on a certain level. Schœlcher deserves to be honoured because he was an enlightened, luminous thinker, and he fought against the dominant views of his time.

Alongside Lamartine, he pulled off the abolition of slavery in 1848, at a time when there was still a lot of resistance to the idea. The slave trade had been prohibited, but not slavery itself, which poet Aimé Césaire, from Martinique, regularly reiterated. It’s true that Schœlcherism would later be viewed as a form of infantilization, but this isn’t about Schœlcher himself, it’s about a political movement.

Do you have an idea for renaming the Colbert room?

I have put forward several names: Félix Éboué, Aimé Césaire and Olympe de Gouges, but it could also be named after the first black representative to vote on a law to abolish slavery at the National Assembly in 1794, Jean-Baptiste Belley. Or it could be named after Severiano de Heredia, Paris’s only black mayor.

There are so many options. If the Colbert room isn’t renamed, an effort will at least need to be made to explain his legacy. We owe this to the descendants of the enslaved, to the children of the countries we colonised, to all French people and, in particular, to young people.

Few French historical figures can escape criticism…

We’re not going to erase Voltaire from our history because he owned shares in plantation companies. We will continue to study history, because it would be absurd not to, but it’s important that we know our entire history because it has repercussions on our current lives.

Our dark past goes beyond slavery; it also involves indentured servants from India with extremely harsh working conditions, as well as the ‘indigenous’ status, forced labour, etc. How can France be reconciled with Algeria if there isn’t, at one point or another, a sort of litmus test, one that is shared by the Algerian side and the French side. If we don’t want to call a spade a spade, reconciliation will never happen — but we need it!

Your editorial provoked some explosive reactions…

I can tell you right away that I’m not aligned with the political party Indigènes de la République (Indigenous People of the Republic) or with La Ligue de défense noire africaine (The Black African Defence League), which has actually gone after the foundation and the chair of its scientific committee, the writer Romuald Fonkoua, calling him a plantation commander!

Enshrining French diversity in the national narrative and acknowledging the role people of African descent have played in our history for centuries, that enables us to assume our multicultural roots and our global identity. If we do this, we will be stronger, not weaker, for it.

It isn’t divisive; instead, it strengthens and enriches our society. That’s why I was surprised, not by the explosive reactions on Twitter after my editorial, but by certain people who refused to discuss the issue. I want a discussion. I hope that this invitation will end up being heard.

What can be done to reach a peaceful consensus?

The mayor of London decided to create a commission made up of historians, council leaders and representatives from civil society to review, as a group and in a neutral setting, the issue of representation in public spaces. Their work can give rise to name changes, educational explanations and the transfer of statues to museums.

The group has a discussion before making any decisions. This approach could be copied by all municipalities interested in addressing this issue in an educational way which doesn’t seek to erase history.

Is there still much to do?

Fundamentally, there’s a tendency to think that, well, we abolished slavery, we have the Taubira Law, and that’s sort of as though we’ve settled our dues. However, for those who have inherited this history, it remains very fresh in their memories.

When the senator from Guadeloupe, Victorin Lurel, who served as Minister of Overseas France when I was Prime Minister, addresses the Senate, there’s a statue of Colbert right in front of his face and he feels ill at ease. Being the great-grandson of a slave, that has an impact.

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At the Ministry of the Economy and Finance, there’s a committee on the history of the French economy that participates in publishing books. It has existed for over 30 years and published around 170 works. But how many have covered France’s colonial past or slavery, which contributed to France’s wealth? Not one.

If you walk into a store today and you’re white, nobody pays you any mind. However, if you’re black, everyone watches you. This is a problem that we need to tackle head on.

How do you think we got to this watershed moment today where voices are finally being heard on the topic?

The killing of George Floyd triggered a groundswell of awareness, particularly in the United States. This is the case for the US police and for an entire society that is still suffering from the wounds of segregation. Black people weren’t the only ones taking part in the protests, and that’s something new which shows that American society is questioning itself.

In Western countries like France, Switzerland and Germany, what the protesters are expressing is that we need to fight discrimination, injustice, prejudice and racism. I think that, apart from certain excesses, the movement is first and foremost based on shared values.

Choosing the site of the Place de la République as a gathering place, it’s symbolic. In Nantes, the fact that the protests ended with a meditation in front of the Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery (Mémorial de l’abolition de l’esclavage), that has meaning.

What kind of approach do you encourage?

If we don’t address this reality through people’s experiences and feelings, then we’ll miss the whole point. Those who aren’t concerned on a personal level don’t have a sense of awareness. Those who are, they feel the effects like a wound. That’s something. We have to think about symbols and tackle problems.

Other than the discussion about renaming buildings, streets, etc., there has been a lot of talk about “decolonisation”, especially on the part of museums, recently…

Last year, the Foundation for the Memory of Slavery organised an international conference at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris on the tangible and intangible heritage related to this history. It coincided with the exhibition “Black models: from Géricault to Matisse”, which took a fresh look at a large body of artwork.

It was interesting and highlighted the importance of art education. Do we know from just looking at Théodore Géricault’s painting, The Raft of the Medusa, that it has an abolitionist message? No.

This exhibition was met with some criticism…

There are people who don’t want to talk about these issues because they see them through an identity-based lens. On a weekly basis we have to put up with the views of Mr Zemmour, a colonial apologist who praised Mr Thomas Robert Bugeaud, Governor-General of Algeria. It’s sad, I don’t want that to be the image France projects.

I was mostly thinking of those who thought the exhibition didn’t go far enough…

Some people are never satisfied! That reminds me of a discussion I had with a representative from Germany’s museum system whose work was challenged by her country’s far-right bloc.

We were talking about the Herero and Namaqua genocide in Namibia perpetrated by Lieutenant General Lothar von Trotha early in the 20th century. It used to be a taboo subject, but today it’s talked about and Germany may issue a formal apology in the near future.

I visited the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool last year, which is undergoing a major expansion. If you add Nantes and Bordeaux, that’s just half of the traffic from the slave trade out of Liverpool! London, Paris and Marseille were also involved. I’m not seeking repentance: the objective is to be aware of the complexity of our history and its contradictions.

At the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, there’s a gallery devoted to Jefferson and Washington, who were deeply inspired by Enlightenment thinkers. The space is called “The Paradox”.

Well, yes, you can call that a paradox, as both Jefferson and Washington had slaves and, today, their plantations are museums which explain the complexity of this history. France needs to join in, we’ll only be stronger for it. We have to contribute to a collective memory.

When it comes to returning works of art, do you also support a pragmatic approach?

There’s a political will today, initiated by President Macron, that breaks with France’s traditional position on the inalienability of works of art. There are now recommendations that approve of restitution on a case-by-case basis, with a dialogue between France and the countries involved.

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Some countries have requested restitutions, like Benin, and it is conceivable that certain restitutions will be quite swift. Our museums shouldn’t be hesitant, but open minded.

What is your position on collecting statistics about ethnic groups?

I don’t think France needs statistics to know that in some neighbourhoods, cities and territories, there is inequality and employment and housing discrimination. France’s Defender of Rights [ombudsman] drafted a report on racial profiling.

What’s more, the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights (Commission nationale consultative des droits de l’homme) recently released a report on racism. We have the knowledge; what we lack is the political will and ambition to solve these problems.

Your work on these issues in Nantes, a former slave trade port, is recognised worldwide. What brought about your awareness on this front?

It goes back to the period when I was Mayor of Saint-Herblain [in western France]. The organisation Mémoire de l’Outre-mer had encouraged me to approach this aspect of history, explaining to me that diversity needed to be further taken into account. I really saw that there was a wide swath of our history that had been forgotten. With a colleague, we then organised a few memorial ceremonies where we threw flowers into the Loire River on every anniversary of the abolition of slavery, in 1848.

Then, you initiated several major projects in Nantes…

In 1985, university professors and community activists wanted to organise a historical and cultural event about the Code noir on the occasion of its 300th anniversary. The mayor at the time, Michel Chauty [Rassemblement pour la République – RPR], refused to support the project. His reasons were of the sort that “You’re going to stir up the past”, “You’re going to divide the citizens of Nantes”, “You’re going to associate Nantes with this painful past”. When I was chosen to take over the leadership of Nantes, I made the commitment that the city would face up to its history and past, without looking for repentance or to guilt-trip, but instead with the desire to inform and take responsibility for the past.

How did that go?

Once elected, with my culture and tourism deputies, Yannick Guin and Yvon Chotard, we launched this effort at the Château des ducs de Bretagne, which was undergoing renovation, with a large exhibition for the general public whose purpose was to recount to the people of Nantes a past that sanctioned the deportation of African men, women and children, as well as the expansion of colonialism via plantations.

The event attracted several hundreds of thousands of visitors and I recall that the President of Benin, Nicéphore Soglo, during a state visit in France, asked to go to Nantes specifically to see the exhibition.

How did the people of Nantes react?

They started to appropriate this history and, unlike what some people thought, society didn’t come apart at the seams, that’s not at all what happened. People were interested and there was a yearning to discover more, even for certain descendants of ship owners who opened their archives. Everyone went along with it and Nantes is the first city to have carried out a robust political initiative on this front. It even impacted the overseas territories, the Caribbean and Africa.

Next, we decided to create the Nantes Museum of History (Musée d’histoire de Nantes), which today has several galleries covering the slave trade, slavery and the colonial period. The museum has become an international point of reference. Colombia, which organised a major exhibition on slavery last year, reached out to the city of Nantes as an expert on the subject. This experience makes me fortunate for these opportunities we’ve created.

What main historical aspects does the museum cover?

Well, for instance, since we’ve been talking quite a bit about Colbert and the Code noir, the Nantes museum has a gallery on the subject. It’s the only museum in France with such a gallery that explains what this aspect of history means.

Recently, visitors have also been able to learn about the relationship between the French Revolution, the abolition of slavery, its reestablishment by Napoleon Bonaparte and the Republic of Haiti. The museum teaches visitors about the unusual relationship between Haiti and France, which made the country pay for its independence. French people don’t know that Haiti was still paying back its debt until the 1950s.

The important Haitian writer Yanick Lahens, professor at the Collège de France, said during her inaugural course that Haitian high school graduates know more about French history than PhD students in French history know about Haiti.

Do you realise what that means? Symbolically, of course, but it also shows the weakness of our country, which can’t cope with the past. And that’s not all! As you visit the galleries, you learn that when we abolished slavery in 1848, we compensated former slave owners but not the former slaves themselves!

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Who realises that the Caisse des dépôts et consignations [French public sector financial institution] managed Haiti’s debt and helped expand colonialism? Nobody realises this and if no one explains it, misunderstandings and suffering continue to persist.

You continued your initiatives with the Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery.

The memorial is unique in its size and power, and today it has a significant international impact. People go there to visit, to meditate.

Visitors have the opportunity to read quotes from all those who fought for the abolition of slavery, but also to hear the echo of the slaves who rebelled against their condition. Right from the beginning, some refused their enslavement. The heroes of this history, the Maroons along with all the others who revolted, need to be known.

Is this the case? No. For example, there’s Louis Delgrès [1766-1802], who believed in the Revolution and died because he refused to surrender. But have we ever heard of him? Are there any streets named after Delgrès in France? No. There are so many injustices we need to repair.

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