Manuel Valls: We cannot repair slavery but we can prepare the future
As part of my official visit to Ghana, I am going to Franklin House, as I have been many times to the island of Gorée in Senegal. Those two places in Africa, those two windows onto the Atlantic, reveal – with the same power, the same emotion and the same indignation – the horror that was slavery, which, over several centuries, in the name of greed and contempt for human life, depleted the African continent of its vital energy, trampled on African societies, and denied cultures, knowledge and an ancestral heritage.
The slave trade was a disaster on a large scale. That reality must be remembered, taught and hammered home.
We must always remember the hell that it was for twelve million men, women and children, torn from the land of their ancestors and taken across the Atlantic, in chains, reduced to the status of cattle, of goods. The many atrocities, rapes and murders. It was a crime against humanity. France fully acknowledged this in the Taubira Act of 21 May 2001.
We must always remember the reality of the crimes. We must also remember the dignity of a struggle. The struggle of the insurgent slaves who strove to break the chains in which others sought to bind them. Their names were Frederick Douglass in the United States, Toussaint Louverture in Haiti, Louis Delgrès in Guadeloupe, and still today they are an example to all those who fight against injustice and for freedom. There is also the dignity of the struggle of Victor Schœlcher, without whom the decree on the abolition of slavery of 27 April 1848 would not have seen the light of day. On 10 May of this year, Jesse Jackson and I paid our respects at his tomb in the Panthéon, where France honours its most illustrious citizens. I also have in mind Abraham Lincoln, thanks to whom slavery was abolished in the United States on 18 December 1865.
It is the task of historians to establish the nature and the magnitude of the crimes, and the reality of the struggles for abolition. It is also the task of historians to shed light on the reality of slavery in all its complexity, without omissions or simplifications, by evoking the Atlantic slave trade, the triangular trade, in which Europe bears a heavy responsibility, but also the Trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean slave trades. It is the reality of the facts, always, that keeps memory alive.
The memory of slavery is central to the conscience of Africa. It inhabits places where everyone can go and reflect. On the African continent but also in France: the memorial in Nantes, the museum in Bordeaux, the ACTe memorial in Guadeloupe. Each of those places is a powerful reminder of the horror of slavery and the duty to remember.
Memory should not divide. It should, on the contrary, close fractures and bring people together, if only we do not give in to the awfulness of competing memories, hierarchies and comparing the suffering of some with the misfortune of others. All of the dark pages of the history of humanity must be denounced in their singularity. We must continue the long march towards a reconciliation of memories, hand in hand. This includes my country, France, and so many others.
A memory that is shared and at peace arms us against racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim and anti-Christian acts, xenophobia and hatred of the other, against prejudice and discrimination – all those abject forms of intolerance that continue to imprison and poison our societies because they represent as many insults, humiliations and wounds.
I know it has taken time to acknowledge the reality of slavery. I know how heavily silence and taboo have weighed on the victims and their descendants. But I also know that the history of Africa is so much more than the history of slavery, to which it is too often reduced. And I know that Africa has the strength to free itself from that past by owning the words of Frantz Fanon: “I am not a slave to slavery”.
Freeing oneself from one’s past is not about absolving those who committed crimes. It is not about forgetting. On the contrary! Freeing oneself from the past is about knowing history and being proud of what one is today, proud too that on the other side of the Atlantic, an African-American culture has flourished, in music, in the arts, in literature. Uprooted, it has reinvented itself. It is the Harlem Renaissance of Langston Hughes who, in a mirror effect, inspired Léopold Sédar Senghor in his affirmation of négritude.
Freeing oneself from the past is also about turning to the future with enthusiasm. It is not so much about living for the idea of reparation – as the great Martiniquan poet and a descendant of slaves, Aimé Césaire, said, slavery is “irreparable” – as about looking to tomorrow, about strengthening the ties between our two continents on either side of the Mediterranean.
That is why I am proposing to create a Euro-African Erasmus-type programme – which will need a name – so that young Africans and young Europeans can come and study in each other’s countries, meet, exchange ideas and learn together. That is also why we must support young African entrepreneurs, as I did in June of this year when I met the 100 young business creators, from 44 English-speaking and French-speaking African countries, who were awarded prizes by the Institut Choiseul. There is so much we can still do to build bridges between our two continents.
The future of Africa is full of promise. Africa is our horizon. The Africa of today and the Africa of tomorrow are an Africa that creates and innovates. Africa is not getting to its feet; it is already standing, with a firm place in history. I am convinced that France and Europe must stand by Africa’s side, so we can build the world of tomorrow together.