This was a media event, for sure, an opportunity not to be missed to see the future president holding the hand of the old one, in a garden filled with old white men in three-piece suits, strewn here and there with a famous black face. You gotta have diversity. Sarkozy had to go for the symbolic gesture of peace and national unity, so he walked over to shake hands with soccer star Lilian Thuram (whom had had strong words for the president elect over his nonchalant use of the term “scum” to define ghetto youths), whispered sweet words in his ear in front of the cameras, ever the magnanimous president. Magnanimous, but not repentant, let that be crystal clear.
The same Sarkozy has indeed declared that repentance is shit, echoing carpet-haired doofus new philosopher André Glucksmann and his idiot friend Pascal Bruckner and their tirades against the “tyranny of repentance,” who they say weighs heavy on the sole shoulders of the nice Western democracies that really do most of the good things in the world anyway. And France is notoriously just that good at repentance; repentance is so much in the French character, that it only took 50 years for a French president to apologize for the collaboration of the French government with the Nazis in WWII. So our new president’s goal on May 10th was not to repent for the horrors of slavery, then, but rather to celebrate. Twisted minds would say celebrate his election; I would rather argue that he was celebrating the commemoration. Sarkozy does not repent, remember. But like all the morons who leave enlightened comments on this topic on all possible web forums and chatrooms, he does not give a flying fuck about slavery either: he wasn’t born when it happened; it was like, 2000 years ago, and those black people can mouth off all they want but wasn’t it blacks like them who sold their brothers in the first place? So there. The hands of France are officially washed, suckers. No repentance needed.
France knows to get inspiration from its allies in time of peace: just like England who this year bombastically celebrated the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave TRADE in 1807 (very clever, that; if you first abolish the trade and 26 years later slavery at large, it gives you two reasons to party), official France also knows this is all about patting yourself on the back. Tony Blair did not apologize or repent; he expressed his “deep sorrow and regret for his nation’s role,” only to further congratulate himself on the courage and the conviction of famous English abolitionist figures such as Equiano, Wilberforce or Clarkson. Don’t even get me started on Equiano...
Don’t get Tony started either; it wouldn’t look too nice if he actually reminded us that abolitionism, at the time, was used by PM William Pitt as a moral big stick to economic ends. He had indeed realized that French planters made more profit out of the British slave trade than the Brits themselves. Ouch. On a similar theme, it would not look so good to recall how English abolitionist campaigns were inversely proportional to British military involvement in revolutionary Haiti. Seeing French soldiers losing ground in fighting the slave army of Toussaint and Biassou, Pitt decided in 1793 to invade all French possessions in the Caribbean, Haiti included. Pitt then proceeded to dump the British abolitionist movement for about ten years. The Haitian campaigned proved a disaster for England, and led to the abolition of slavery by the French Republic. Well done. Once English troops evacuated Haiti in 1798, assured that the bastard Napoleon would never get the pearl of the Antilles back as a potential bridgehead against British colonies, abolitionism could resume in all its glory.
Ah, how dirty history can be... And therein lies the beauty of commemorations: have a little speech, don’t explain too much, explanations are for history books, you can learn that stuff like everybody else, on your own, sterilize the whole thing, reduce it to a nice shiny sculpture, and, if possible two or three songs, and you’ll be good to go. Thus on May 10th, we were regaled with a song on the abolition of slavery taken off the dusty shelves of revolutionary history. We can congratulate ourselves in French too. Nothing will be said to remind us that the 1794 abolition was kind of an accident, with the National Assembly bourgeois pushed by the people of Paris getting drunk on lyrical flights of fancy, before waking up the next morning with a serious case of the slave trade hangover. Not that we hold it against them: this is what historical moments are made of, Robespierre and Danton thinking to themselves, “ah fuck it, let’s try this universal fraternity thing,” right before getting their heads chopped off. But we won’t mention that. This is a commemoration, a celebration to the glory of the nation. What’s important is the broken chain, it is Victor Schoelcher, the man behind the final abolition in 1848. You can’t spend you life repenting, now, can you?
Our new president’s opinion is very clear: it’s not new, linked as it is with the definition of the nation according to Sarkozy, which he inherited from good ol’ conservative France. The aristocrat knows his right-wing thinkers, and when he talks about nation, he also invokes a specific historical practice. It was very well explained by Ernest Renan, back in 1882: “Forgetting history- and [...] outright historical inaccuracies - are essential factors in the creation of a nation, which is why improved historical studies are often a danger for national identity.” There you have it. As we were waiting for the announced creation of the Ministry for national Identity, Sarkozy made things very clear: France is the abolition of slavery and resistance. We’ll keep the dirty linen in the closet, thank you very much.
There is logic in Renan’s statement. The problem, of course, is that the French nation in 2007 cannot keep pretending it did not self-mutilate for centuries. Renan saw in the nation “a daily plebiscite,” where citizens would voluntarily forget the divisions of the past in order to build a better future. This would be nice and great if one of the fundamental criteria for the nation according to Renan was not missing: for him, “no French citizen knows if he is Burgundian, Alain, or Visigoth.” True enough; but every French citizen knows if he is black, brown, yellow or white, and therefore whether or not he comes from “French stock.”
It is easy to ask for union when it only exists when convenient, when cameras are around. The same Sarkozy who led his campaign with not-so-subtle ethnic references (even to designate himself as a son of Hungarian immigrants), would now want to pull a Renan on us. So once and for all: we will forget the past when it is recognized in the present, when the color of our skin is not reason enough to ask for national ID. Sarkozy can recycle lectures from the 19th century as if he’d written them, the dusky children of the Republic are no dunces. This stuff does not work so well anymore: if you want to commemorate, you’d better be ready to hear us shout.
In a video from the Libération website shot on May 10th, you can see a lady get irritated at being kept in the back row when clearly, as she will yell many times over, “ we are the descendants [of the slaves]!” If you can hear French and pay close attention, you will make out another voice asking her to bring it down a notch, because she’d like to listen to the music, please. Do with that what you want. My analysis: in France, as you might know, everything always ends with a song. But this is only the beginning. Fasten your seatbelt, Sakorzy: your nation is in danger.