France remembers slavery victims
France has been holding Europe's first national day of remembrance for the victims of slavery.
President Jacques Chirac said facing up to France's colonial past was "one of the keys to our national cohesion".
He opened an art exhibition in Paris' Luxembourg Gardens, while other cities and venues around France held their own ceremonies for Slavery Remembrance Day.
Events were also being held in France's ex-colony Senegal, from where African slaves were shipped to the Caribbean.
Wednesday's day of commemoration was ordered by Mr Chirac, on the fifth anniversary of the passing of a law by the French Senate recognising slavery as a crime against humanity.
FRENCH SLAVE TRADE
France mainly used slaves, taken from Africa, in its Caribbean colonies
France estimated to have shipped 1,250,000 slaves
France was Europe's first country to abolish slavery, in 1794
But it was revived by Napoleon in 1802, and only banned for good in 1848
Hundreds of thousands of slaves were taken by French ships from Africa to plantations in the Caribbean before France banned the practice in 1848.
Now Mr Chirac - with an eye on his legacy, says the BBC's Clive Myrie in Paris - wants France never to forget what he calls "this indelible stain on history".
The president says he is committed to fighting modern forms of slavery, allowing companies that knowingly use forced labour anywhere in the world to be prosecuted in French courts.
"This first commemoration isn't the end, it's a beginning. It's the necessary affirmation of the memory of slavery shared by all French people, whatever their origin," he said.
The city of Nantes on the Atlantic coast, where many of France's slave ships originated, held a minute's silence.
Museums and libraries in Paris opened special events showing off contemporary manuscripts and artefacts.
"It was imperative that slavery be given a place in our collective memory," said Marcel Dorigny, a history professor who helped institute Slavery Remembrance Day.
"French people who are the descendants of slaves have felt marginalised - forgotten by history."
But some critics said the commemoration was not enough, and that the government's current policies were still alienating racial minorities.
French MPs were on Wednesday examining tough new immigration legislation limiting entry to foreigners.
"We have to be pleased France has recognised 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.
"It seems to be the extreme right influencing immigration policy," he added.
Mr Chirac's efforts to address France's colonial past have also proved controversial on the other side of the debate.
Laws he has championed requiring schools to teach lessons on the horrors of the slave trade have angered some historians, who say the government is dictating how history is taught in the classroom, and ignoring the positive role they say France played in its former colonies.
How should countries recognise difficult aspects of their history? What do you think of M. Chirac's decision to hold such an event?
Story from BBC NEWS:
Published: 2006/05/10 14:02:31 GMT
© BBC MMVI