France pays tribute to abolition of slavery
PARIS, May 10 (Reuters) France today paid tribute to the abolition of slavery but the first national day to commemorate this dark chapter of history was marred by fresh questions over the country's colonial legacy.
Marking the adoption of a 2001 law recognising the trade as a crime against humanity, President Jacques Chirac unveiled an exhibition in a Paris park, museums were to run special shows and children across France were to discuss slavery at school.
But more than 150 years after it abolished slavery, France faced new questions over its colonial legacy, sparked by a tough new immigration bill, three weeks of suburban riots last year and a controversial law on the country's past role in Africa.
''Let's look our past in the face, it's one of the keys to our national cohesion. It's an extra force for our future,'' Chirac said at a speech to mark the day, which is also being celebrated in France's overseas territories and former colonies.
''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 announced the new memorial day in January, in the midst of a heated debate about a law that urged teachers to stress the ''positive role of the French presence overseas''.
Critics of the law in the former colonies asked whether France, whose empire ended in bloody wars in Indochina and Algeria, had learnt anything from its colonial experience.
Chirac ordered the repeal of the contested article. But last week, 40 lawmakers from Chirac's ruling right reopened the debate, saying if the ''positive role'' article was abolished, they also wanted scrapped a phrase in the 2001 law stating that slavery should have ''the place it merits'' at schools.
CHERRY PICKING IMMIGRANTS France's conservative government has also come under fire over a new immigration bill, which will make family reunification more difficult and expulsions from France easier.
Human rights groups have called the law ''cynical, populist and demagogic'', with some saying the cherry-picking of qualified immigrants amounted to a form of neo-colonialism.
France vowed to tighten immigration rules after rioting youths -- many of them of immigrant origin set thousands of cars ablaze last November, protesting against discrimination.
Unemployment stands at 9.5 per cent in France, but among the youths from immigrant families in the crime-ridden suburbs it can run as high as 40 or 50 per cent.
France ruled over more than one-third of Africa at the height of its empire and is still deeply engaged in several former colonies.
While many Africans recognise some positive aspects of colonialism, like improved infrastructure, some are also angry at what they see as continued French meddling.
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika this week repeated a demand that France apologise to his country for ''genocidal'' colonial rule, saying this was the only way to turn a chronically ill relationship into true friendship.
Algeria was invaded by France in 1830 and became a colony until independence in 1962.
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