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France examines scars left by slavery

Commemoration falls shy, some say

PARIS -- France honored victims of the slave trade yesterday with a national day of concerts, school lessons, Louvre exhibits, and ceremonies in a trading port that grew rich from New World slave plantations.

President Jacques Chirac, marking the first annual commemoration day, urged France to confront the dark chapters of its history, 158 years after it abolished the practice of traders seizing Africans to toil in Caribbean colonies.

''Looking directly at our entire past is one of the keys to our national cohesion," said Chirac, who announced the national day in January, soon after riots swept through the country's heavily immigrant suburbs, raising debate about France's model of integrating minorities and the lingering scars of its colonial past.

The commemoration day did not bring a day off in workplaces or schools, and the idea of reparations for slavery is not an issue in France.

Patrick Lozes, president of a federation representing France's black community, said the government's effort fell short. The federation had hoped to plan cultural events on a larger, more festive scale, but the premier's office turned it down, he said.

''The government did not take into account the size and importance of the warning sounded by the riots," Lozes said.

Chirac inaugurated an art exhibit in Paris's Luxembourg Gardens. In the port city of Nantes, where many of France's slave ships originated, there were poetry readings and traditional dances, and children tossed flowers into the water.

The Louvre Museum and National Library in Paris offered special tours showcasing artwork and manuscripts dealing with the slave trade.

Development Minister Brigitte Girardin flew to Senegal's Goree Island, the point of no return for many Africans. As many as 20 million slaves are believed to have transited through the island, where they were held in crowded, diseased cells, then crammed onto ships for the dangerous journey across the Atlantic.

Some 20 million people worldwide are still subject to some form of slavery today, Girardin said.

''The task remains immense, and France wants to be in the front line in this combat for human rights," she said.

France was Europe's fourth-largest slave trader after Portugal, England, and Spain. It first abolished slavery in 1794, after a successful revolt by slaves in the island colony of Saint Domingue, which later became Haiti. But that initial abolition -- Europe's first -- was short-lived: Napoleon reestablished slavery in 1802. It wasn't until 1848 that France put a definitive end to slavery.

The Netherlands already marks a day for slavery on July 1. France's commemoration was timed to coincide with the May 10, 2001, passage of a law recognizing slavery as a crime against humanity.

That law, which requires schools to include lessons about slavery as part of classroom curriculum, passed unanimously. Yet it has recently come under fire from some in the ruling conservative party, a sign of how sensitive France's colonial history remains today.

Forty lawmakers from Chirac's Union for a Popular Movement party last week urged the French leader to do away with the scholastic measures in the law. Their move was retaliation for France's decision to scrap part of another law that sparked a furor in former colonies: It required school textbooks to highlight the ''positive role" of French colonialism.

The term was later stripped from the legislation.

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