France and Legacy of Slavery

By Nick TattersallTue May 9, 11:22 AM ET, Reuters


More than 150 years after the last shackled slave passed through the "door of no return" on Senegal's island of Goree, some Africans wonder how much the colonial balance of power has really changed.

France, its overseas territories and former colonies commemorate the abolition of slavery on Wednesday, a new date chosen by French President Jacques Chirac to mark the adoption of a 2001 law recognising the trade as a crime against humanity.

But for the thousands of young Africans who risk death each year in rickety boats for a life of hard labor on foreign shores, the wrongs of the colonial period have simply given way to a modern-day form of enslavement.

"We have the impression that France needs the poverty and ignorance of Africa," said Eloi Coly, curator at the Slave House on Senegal's Goree Island, from where an unknown number of slaves were shipped largely to French colonies in the Caribbean between the mid-16th and 19th centuries.

"When France needed to develop after the Second World War it had access to African labor. Now they think African immigrants are the root cause of unemployment and their housing problems," he said, sat in front of the pink stucco building where slaves passed through the "door of no return" as they boarded slave ships.

France ruled over more than a third of Africa at the height of its empire and is still deeply engaged in several former colonies, with military bases dotted around West and Central Africa where French businesses are the major investors.

Critics at home and abroad have blasted France's failure to shake off colonial attitudes, particularly after a law last year urged teachers to stress the "positive role of the French presence overseas."

"We have to be pleased France has recognized slavery as a crime against humanity ... but there are still a lot of paradoxes and an insufficient knowledge of history," said Alioune Tine, secretary-general of African rights group RADDHO.

"The law on the positive side of colonization profoundly shocked francophone countries in Africa," he told Reuters.

"It seems to be the extreme right influencing immigration policy ... and modern forms of slavery are alive and well with underpaid workers on the black market."

French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has drafted a tough law that would make it harder for immigrants to bring relatives to France, force newcomers to take civics lessons and end their automatic right to residence after 10 years.


With unemployment topping 50 percent in parts of West Africa, young men with no hope of finding work at home are often galled that their former colonial power refuses them visas having reaped the benefit of immigrant labor in the past.

Driven to enter Europe illegally, many end up in the 'banlieues' of Paris and other French cities, soulless suburbs ironically built mainly for immigrant workers welcomed to France after its African colonies gained independence in the 1960s.

Racial segregation in the crime-ridden districts contributed to weeks of rioting last November, with many French-born citizens of African and Arab origin blaming the unrest on what they see as the racist nature of French society.

"There is a form of amnesia and injustice when it comes to all the profit that France has drawn from slavery and from colonization," RADDHO's Tine said.

"If May 10 is to be a meaningful date it has to be a day when these elements are studied and considered," he said.

Estimates suggest between 11 and 12 million slaves were shipped from Africa by European slavers but the question of who should apologize for the trade has proved a thorny one.

France first abolished slavery in 1794 but it was reinstated by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802, before it was definitively abolished in 1848. Britain will commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of its slave trade next year.

Slavery had long existed in Africa before Europeans turned it into an industry, with slaves captured in battle often sold across the Sahara desert to Arab traders.

"African chiefs were the ones waging war on each other and capturing their own people and selling them," Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said in an interview when then-U.S. President Bill Clinton toured Africa in 1998.

"If anyone should apologize it should be the African chiefs. We still have those traitors here even today."
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