Why the French presidential candidates are arguing about their colonial history

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When the French presidential elections begin on April 23, the world will be watching closely.

Polls are tightening up, but Marine Le Pen, of the far-right National Front (FN) Party, seems likely to get through to the second, runoff ballot on May 10. Will the xenophobic populism that brought Brexit to the U.K. and Donald Trump to the White House claim the Elysée Palace, too?

Le Pen’s expected advance has been one of the few constants in a campaign marked by surprising, dispiriting twists. To a historian of French colonialism like me, one of the most revealing is the renewed debate over the memory and teaching of the colonial past. The candidates’ positions on this issue can be seen as a revealing barometer of French attitudes toward immigration, race and multiculturalism today.

At its height in the 1930s, the French empire encompassed some 60 million colonial subjects, from the Caribbean to Southeast Asia. But after decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s, the French relegated imperial racism, slavery and colonialism to the “historical back burner.” The eruption of the history wars finally broke this public silence in the mid-1990s.

There were two main triggers for the decade-long fight about how to remember France’s colonial history.

The first was the 150th anniversary of the French abolition of colonial slavery in 1998. Angered by the self-congratulatory celebration of French abolitionists, black and Afro-Caribbean activists demanded greater attention to enslaved Africans’ suffering.

Their efforts culminated in a 2001 law sponsored by Guyanese deputy Christiane Taubira. The “Taubira Law” “recognizes the slave trade and slavery as crimes against humanity.”

The second came in 2000, with revelations about the French army’s systematic use of torture during the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962). Memoirs published by an Algerian nationalist and a French military officer and studies by two young French historians unleashed harsh condemnation of abuses committed in Algeria, the jewel of the French empire.






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