The contest for memory

The contest for memory

Both France and Britain are struggling to come to terms with the bloody record of their empires.

Naima Bouteldja and Stuart Hodkinson, The Guardian, May 17, 2006

In a political gesture that marks the beginning of a long-overdue apology for its role in what is arguably Europe’s greatest collective crime, France has this month held its first national day of remembrance for the victims of slavery. The official commemoration stems from the historic events of May 23 1998, when 45,000 people, mostly descendants of enslaved Africans born in the Caribbean, silently marched on the Place de la Nation in Paris to mark the 150th anniversary of France’s 1848 abolition of slavery.

Ever since, France has experienced an outpouring of public debate about her colonial past. This period has been painful and divisive, not least because of the discrimination that still afflicts migrants and their descendants from the former French empire.

To its credit, the French government has contributed to a « policy of memory » through its plans to open museums and spaces dedicated to the history of immigration in Paris, Marseille and Lyon. However, many of these initiatives would be more welcome if this policy didn’t also include an insidious attempt to rehabilitate France’s bloody colonial past as a largely heroic passage in the nation’s history to which its people owe their gratitude – a process that has gone much further than the more tentative steps in the same direction in Britain.

Nowhere has this policy been more pronounced than in relation to Algeria. In February last year, the French parliament voted to compensate and honour those responsible for administering and controlling its former colony. Incredibly, this included members of the Secret Armed Organisation (OAS), a clandestine far-right organisation responsible for terror attacks in France and Algeria in the early 60s. The same legislation required school programmes « to recognise the positive role of the French presence overseas, especially in north Africa, and give an eminent place … to the sacrifices of fighters for the French army raised in these territories ». It was later repealed following widespread public opposition.

Far from making amends for its colonial past, some of the government’s recent actions – such as the state of emergency during November’s riots in the French suburbs – represent an alarming continuity with practices used against colonised populations. Fortunately, France’s attempts to rewrite its past have aroused fierce opposition – last week, for example, thousands marched in Paris to commemorate the Setif and Guelma massacres in Algeria in 1945 in which up to 45,000 Algerians were slaughtered by French troops. This struggle against collective amnesia is starting to penetrate public institutions. Throughout 2006 socialist-run council districts of Paris are organising events to critically mark the 75th anniversary of the International Colonial Exposition.

Of course, France’s soul-searching about its colonial record has significance on this side of the Channel. Next year marks the bicentenary of Britain’s abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. While Britain has an edge over France in colonial and postcolonial education, the paucity of informed public debate about the British empire remains striking.

For instance, amid the outpouring of nostalgia that has greeted the demolition and farcical rebuild of Wembley stadium, few commentators have pointed out its colonial origins as the Empire Stadium. Built to host and for ever symbolise the 1924 British Empire Exhibition, Wembley’s imperial architecture was part of a grand but desperate plan by the British ruling class « to strengthen the bonds that bind the Mother Country to her Sister States and Daughter Nations » at a time when the empire was beginning to crumble.

Just as in France, those seeking remembrance and reparations for Britain’s colonial past will first have to overcome government and mainstream media spin. African organisations have complained at their exclusion from the government’s advisory group on the 2007 bicentenary commemorations, chaired by John Prescott.

Thanks to Gordon Brown’s January speech to the Fabian Society on « The Future of Britishness », we now know why. Using William Wilberforce as its central focus, New Labour plans to whitewash 2007 as a celebration of how « Britain led the world in abolishing the slave trade » – rather than explore the centuries of enslavement and exploitation imposed by the British empire on nearly a quarter of the world’s people.

· Naima Bouteldja [email protected] is a researcher for the Transnational Institute, Stuart Hodkinson [email protected] a research fellow at Leeds University.