Erase no trace: Vive la France!

Timothy RybackWednesday 12 August 2020

Pic: A worker cleans the defaced statue of Jean-Baptiste Colbert in Paris, France, June 2020. Shutterstock.com/ Thibault Camus

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‘The Republic will unbolt no statue,’ Emmanuel Macron told his nation in a televised address in June 2020. France, Macron said, would ‘not erase any trace or any name from its history.’ This was not bunkered conservatism, nor jingoistic nationalism. It was a President speaking from a moral high ground. In 2001, the Loi Taubira recognised slavery and the slave trade as a ‘crime against humanity’ and obligated municipalities to address legacies of slavery in their public spaces, including their statues and street names. As the French now know, it was more easily promulgated than done.

Named after Christiane Taubira, a French politician of French Guianese heritage, the Loi Taubira is officially known as the ‘Law of May 21, 2001.’ Along with embedding this dark legacy in the French penal code (Article 1), the Loi Taubira also mandated, among other things, the inclusion of the history of the slave trade in the national curriculum (Article 2), as well as the creation of a committee ‘responsible for proposing, throughout the national territory, locations and activities that guarantee the sustainability of the memory of this cross across the generations.’ This included street names.

Contested histories

This article is authored by Timothy Ryback on behalf of the group of experts convened by the IBA, the Salzburg Global Seminar and IHJR. This group is preparing a volume of eight case studies addressing the social, political and legal dynamics in facilitating or complicating the resolution of public disputes over contested historical legacies in public spaces. The project will be the product of three years of in-depth research.

Find out more at www.euroclio.eu/project/contested-histories

For example, in Paris, the Rue Richepance, situated in the elegant 1st arrondissement just two blocks from the Tuileries gardens, had been named after Antoine Richepanse, a general under Napoleon Bonaparte who contributed to the reimplementation of slavery in Guadeloupe in 1802. In 2002, the name was changed to Rue du Chevalier-de-Saint-George, honouring Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, the son of an enslaved black woman and an aristocratic plantation owner, who arrived in Paris in the 18th century and became a notable composer. The names of both Richepanse and Bologne are presented together on a plaque as a way of preserving, and contrasting, both historical memories.

In the port city of Nantes, the legacies of slavery were woven deeply into the urban memory landscape. As part of the ‘triangular slave trade,’ in which French ships brought finished goods to West Africa, transported slaves to the Americas and returned to France with products like sugar, tobacco and cotton, Nantes flourished.

By the middle of the 18th century, Nantes was France’s largest trading port, commanding more than 40 per cent of the French slave trade, and boasting at least 15 sugar refineries and nine cotton mills, the latter helping make Nantes the largest manufacturer of printed cloth in the country. Nantes’ slave merchants built private villas and public buildings. The Hôtel Grou, a registered ‘monument historique,’ was built by one of Nantes’ wealthiest slave trading families. One of the classic streets of old town Nantes, Rue Kervégan, honours Christophe-Clair Danyel de Kervégan, a former mayor and ship owner in the slave trade.

In 2012, in response to the Loi Taubira, Nantes dedicated a memorial to the abolition of slavery along the former slave ship docks. An urban trail with 11 plaques, in both French and English, explained Nantes’ role in the slave trade. ‘It wasn’t an easy path,’ Mayor Jean-Marc Ayrault, a former Prime Minister, said at the time. ‘But after initial resistance from reactionaries in the town, the majority of people and politicians ended up backing the plan.’

It doesn’t suffice to break the thermometer in the hope that the fever will go down. If we erase all the signs of humiliation of men, how can we believe that it existed?

Karfa Diallo
Founder of Mémoires et Partage

Nantes’ streets were even more complicated. With half a dozen streets honouring former residents involved in the slave trade, Nantes had a binary choice: erasure or placarding. Louis-Georges Tin, who founded a national initiative aimed at forcing France to confront its slavery-era legacies, advocated erasure. Tin objected to streets being named after perpetrators of ‘crimes against humanity.’ He called them ‘names of shame,’ and argued that they should be replaced by names of heroes who fought against slavery. Why do city officials consider it better to leave names of people who participated in what has been recognised as a crime against humanity, Tin wondered, rather than paying tribute to the resistance fighters?

Karfa Diallo, an activist and Founder of Mémoires et Partage, disagreed. ‘To erase names would be too easy,’ he has argued. ‘It doesn’t suffice to break the thermometer in the hope that the fever will go down.’ Diallo continues: ‘If we erase all the signs of humiliation of men, how can we believe that it existed?’ He insisted that ‘the transmission of the memory of slavery therefore does not go through the erasure of these street names but through humanist reinterpretation, in the true sense of the term, by the explanation of these names.’

Although Mayor Ayrault endorsed placarding, this additional measure presented challenges. To place a plaque on a building with a street name, the owner of the building must agree. In the case of a condominium, it can be complicated by the presence of multiple residents. More consequentially is the issue of defamation. A French law on press freedom, dating from 29 July 1881, explicitly prohibits the public dissemination of information ‘intended to attack the honour or the consideration of their descendants, spouses or legal heirs.’ Nantes residents feared the placards could ‘stigmatise’ and ‘humiliate’ descendants of slave traders who still live and work in Nantes.

Nantes historian Jean-Clément Martin argued that neither option was a viable solution to the question of public spaces and historical memory, since erasure creates ‘an incredible break in collective memories.’ Martin argues that ‘names form layers of history developed over decades, which helps one to understand the evolution and contradictions of history.’ But he also opposes placarding, ‘because even a plaque would not succeed in rendering the complexity of a character in history.’

To date, there is only one placard in the Rue Kervégan, on Nantes’ urban slave trade trail. It is a large metal panel with a period portrait of Christophe-Clair Danyel de Kervégan, and a brief narrative on his role in the slave trade. Sharing the panel is a portrait of Olympe de Gouges, a French playwright, feminist and anti-slavery activist. ‘Rather than erasing or stigmatising, we prefer to explain what happened, to conduct pedagogy in a public space,’ Olivier Chateau, Deputy Mayor of Nantes, explained recently. ‘We preferred to bet on a large, more visible panel, which allows one to understand the process,’ as well as progress.

At least for the moment, the descendants of most slave-trading dynasties can live in privacy with their family name, not narrated on the streets of Nantes, legally protected from stigmatisation as ‘descendants’ by the law of 29 July 1881.

Timothy Ryback is Executive Director of the Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation (IHJR), in The Hague, and can be contacted at ryback@ihjr.org