As the color faded from the sky, a group gathered outside the white stone Basilica of St. Denis, where dozens of French kings are buried, to pay homage to their ancestors.
Neither King Louis XIII, who authorized the slave trade in 1642, nor his son, the Sun King, who introduced the legal code of slavery, whose remains are buried inside the Gothic building. They came for the victims, who are honored with a modest monument outside.
“This is Jean-Pierre Calodat,” said Josée Grard, 81, running his fingers over the name written on the globe-shaped sculpture as drums echoed around him. He “he was released four years before abolition. His wife, Marie Lette, must be close to him.
There are only four memorials like this in all of France. Last fall, the government announced it would do more: build a “National Monument to the Victims of Slavery” in the Trocadéro Gardens, an Instagram-favorite tourist destination because of its clear view of the Eiffel Tower.
But the monument, intended as a gesture of reconciliation in a country that has been reluctant to address the ugly parts of its past, has itself become a source of division.
It will bear the names of some 224,000 people who were freed from slavery by France in 1848, became citizens and were assigned a surname.
While some see it as a hopeful sign of progress, others have dismissed it as contradictory talk. Specifically, they say, by listing the names of people who were freed, the monument will once again glorify France for abolishing slavery, not atone for keeping some four million people in slavery for two centuries.
The group that has lobbied for the monument for decades, which includes Parisians who grew up in Guadeloupe and Martinique, hopes it will offer something more intimate.
“This is not a monument for political confrontation, but one to give peace to the people,” said Serge Romana, a doctor who was named co-director of the monument along with a government cabinet minister. “For the State to honor these people is not to be ashamed.”
In a country where national history is so important that the president has a special memorial adviser, the history of slavery – and its lingering effects – remains largely taboo. The capital is full of historical statues and commemorative plaques, but only a few speak on the subject. None of the more than 130 museums in Paris are dedicated exclusively to slavery or the history of colonialism.
President Emmanuel Macron promised to change that and “look our past in the face.” He has taken some measures, such as officially establishing the Slavery Memory Foundation in 2018 and paying tribute last year to Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture in the French prison where he died.
The acute sensitivity among French leaders underscores a contradiction at the root of national identity: How can the country that bills itself as a revolutionary champion of universal human rights have enslaved millions of people at the same time?
“The challenge is to integrate the complexities and contradictions of a society into a community history,” explained Jean-Marc Ayrault, a former prime minister who heads the Foundation for the Memory of Slavery. “Our goal is not to pit communities against each other or create a war of personal stories. “It is building a shared history.”
Its foundation often does so by highlighting French fighters against slavery over those who benefited from it and maintained it.
The committee that promotes the monument was born in protest precisely for that type of national rethinking. On the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in France in 1998, the government announced national celebrations with the motto: “Everyone born in 1848”.
“We said no: our people were created in slavery,” said Emmanuel Gordien, 65, another doctor and former independence activist from Guadeloupe. “We didn’t want to erase history.”
Together with Romana and other Guadeloupean activists, he called for a funeral march through the streets of Paris to pay tribute to ancestors who had been enslaved. Tens of thousands came.
The group later formed an association named after that protest, the May 23, 1998 March Committee, to search for that history. They spent years researching various French archives.
Gordien grew up knowing that his great-great-grandfather Bouirqui was born in West Africa, sold into slavery, and was called George, and that his family owned land in Guadeloupe that had been part of the former slave plantation.
“That kind of knowledge had been lost through shame,” Gordien said, “and also through French assimilation.”
For most others, their personal connection to this story remained vague. Slaves in the French colonies were typically called only by their first name, making in-depth genealogical research very difficult.
But the group discovered that after abolition, the French government had ordered its administrators to assign each new citizen a surname, so that at least men could vote. The names, the directive said, cannot be those of ancient masters, must be inspired by ancient history and the calendar, and must vary infinitely.
“If you had an officer interested in fruit, you would have a fruit name. If he liked rocks, he would get rock or sand,” said Gordien, whose ancestor was named after Roman emperors.
Names were recorded in registers, which often included personal details: the names of the enslaved person’s parents, the type of work they did, their village or former plantation, and where they were born.
Volunteers collected more than 160,000 records from Guadeloupe and Martinique and put all the information in two books and a search engine online registration. Those names will be combined with others found by historians and activists in other former French colonies (now overseas departments) where slavery was enforced.
Since then, the group has organized weekly research and genealogy sessions from its small office in the 20th arrondissement of Paris, to help people trace their own family histories. In some cases, their searches have unearthed pre-abolition documents: ancient notarial acts for the sale of slaves, from whom they have been able to verify that they were ancient relatives of members of the community. His investigations often provoke strong reactions.
“A woman fell to the ground, as if she had suffered a stroke. Another person left immediately; she didn’t want to know,” said Grard, who, after finding her own ancestors, has spent years volunteering with the group to help others do the same. “It’s a huge shock.”
But for others, the research leads to a deeper understanding of their past, themselves, and how they connect to France’s broader history. “This is my family,” Grard said, hanging a paper lantern on the monument next to the names of his ancestors. “They are part of me.”
The monument will offer respect to their ancestors and healing for their living descendants, group members say.
“We need to be at peace with this history and our connection to this history,” Romana said. “It’s a way forward.”
The names of memorials are important, said Sarah Gensburger, president of the international association for memory studies and a sociologist and historian at Sciences Po University in Paris.
“It gives families a place to grieve when they don’t have graves,” he said. “It’s also a way to include yourself in the whole story.”
Critics, however, question the decision to honor only 224,000 people and not the millions who suffered under French slavery.
“They want to pay tribute to people who were enslaved, but they are putting the names of people freed by the Republic,” said Myriam Cottias, director of the International Research Center on Slavery and Post-Slavery in Paris. “That’s why they got this monument: it glorifies the Republic.”
Lilian Thuram, former French soccer star and anti-racist educator, supports the idea of a monument, but not with names assigned by the same French state that enslaved them.
“Why not mark in marble all the names of former enslavers and people who became rich through slavery?” he said.