France Seeks Proposals for Memorial to Victims of Slavery

Currently, Paris is home to just one significant monument recognizing the country’s history of enslavement

Gardens
The planned memorial to victims of slavery will be located in the Tuileries Gardens in the center of Paris. Photo by Uploadalt via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

France’s Ministry of Culture is seeking proposals for a Paris memorial to victims of slavery. Submissions for the monument—slated to stand in the Tuileries Gardens near the Louvre—will be accepted through September 1.

The call for designs marks the first significant progress on an initiative first announced in 2016, when then-president François Hollande called for the country to establish a museum and memorial recognizing the country’s history of enslavement.

“This project expresses the desire to honor the victims of slavery and to recognize their invaluable contribution to the nation,” says the ministry in a statement. “The memorial aims to be a commemorative place [that has] a strong educational dimension.”

Currently, the French capital’s only significant memorial to victims of slavery is a large bronze sculpture of broken chains. Installed outside of a building once owned by the Bank of France, which was a key participant in the country’s slave trade, the statue is “something people pass but do not really see,” wrote James McAuley for the Washington Post in 2016.

“Few even know of its existence,” he added.

France is also home to numerous memorials celebrating the abolition of slavery in 1848: A large monument in the port city of Nantes uses a cramped subterranean passageway to recreate “a feeling reminiscent of the extreme confinement experienced aboard … slave ships,” according to its creators, while a statue in the southern city of Pau depicts a black individual in chains gazing at the sky. Last week, vandals covered the Pau monument in white paint and left a paint can stating “White Lives Matter” at the scene, reports the Associated Press.

Recognizing France’s history of slavery should be separate from honoring the fact that it later outlawed the slave trade, Louis-Georges Tin, president of the Representative Council of France’s Black Associations, told the Washington Post in 2016.

“France has a memory of abolition,” Tin said, “but not of slavery.”

France Seeks Proposals for Memorial to Victims of Slavery
The Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery in Nantes Groume via Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0

Prior to 1848, France was the third-largest European country (after Portugal and England) involved in the slave trade, noted Alissa Rubin for the New York Times in 2018. French slave traders transported between 1.3 and 1.4 million people from Africa to French colonies. Per the Post, many experts have argued that the effects of slavery and the subsequent plantation economy, which remained in place until the 1960s, have echoes in socioeconomic disparities today.

In 2018, President Emmanuel Macron reaffirmed his predecessor’s plans for a memorial, telling reporters that a foundation established to oversee the project would “put slavery back into the long history of France, from the first French colonial empire to the present day,” according to artnet News.

The Ministry of Culture plans to choose the final design by early 2021 and complete work by the fall. The memorial will be placed in the Tuileries Gardens, a 55-acre historical landmark that houses more than 200 sculptures and welcomes around 14 million visitors each year. Because the gardens are managed by the Louvre, a panel of officials from the museum will help oversee the project.

Though the Representative Council of France’s Black Associations welcomes the announcement, Tin tells the Art Newspaper’s Gareth Harris that a museum “would be better” than a memorial.

“It is high time we had a museum in Paris,” he adds. “There also needs to be some kind of financial compensation.”

Tin notes that the council plans to submit a report calling for a new museum to Paris’ next mayor, who will be chosen in a June 28 election.

When officials ultimately choose a winning design for the memorial, “the artist chosen must be of African descent,” he says.

The ministry’s call for proposals arrives at a time when countries around the world are facing a reckoning over the fate of public works honoring slaveholders and other controversial figures. In recent days, protesters in the United States have toppled statues of Christopher Columbus and Confederate leaders, among others; local authorities have also pledged or begun to remove statues and plaques commemorating such individuals. Across the English Channel in Bristol, protesters pulled down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston and threw it into the harbor.

Facing similar debates in France, Macron addressed the nation in a televised speech, stating that “the republic will not erase any trace, or any name, from its history ... it will not take down any statue.”

“We should look at all of our history together with lucidity,” said the French president, not deny “who we are.”