January 17, 2023
The Taubira Law, named after the deputy behind it, Christiane Taubira, is a French law that recognises the trade of enslaved people as a crime against humanity. It is the first law in the world to do so, making it extremely symbolic. The categorisation of slavery was an important issue in and around 1998, the year marking the one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the second and final abolition of slavery in the French colonies.
In order to prepare for the 1998 commemorations, Lionel Jospin’s government established a commission, chaired by Guadeloupean novelist Daniel Maximin. For the very first time, this commission examined abolition from the perspective of mainland France but also from that of the enslaved populations and the various resistance methods developed in response. In parallel, several associations sprung up with the aim of offering alternative ways of thinking about France’s past and its role in colonial slavery. The emphasis, therefore, was less a commemoration of the abolition implemented by mainland France in 1848 than a tribute to the populations from the African continent who had been enslaved, of whom many inhabitants of France’s overseas territories are descendants. This movement was driven primarily by activists from the Caribbean diaspora in France who organized a silent march in Paris on 23 May 1998, adding weight to recent demands to recognize the slave trade and slavery as a crime against humanity. It also led to the creation of an association whose mission is to honour the memory of the victims of colonial slavery—the 23 May ’98 March Committee (CM98).
These demands were formulated into a bill, drafted by the deputy of Guyana Christiane Taubira. This bill sought to legally qualify slavery as a crime against humanity and was published in December of that year. The deputy went on to defend her position in a parliamentary speech given on 18 February 1999. In it, she evoked the need for such recognition for a “symbolic” reparation, which she claimed was “the most powerful of all”. She also spoke of this law as an act of “political” and “moral” reparation, while ruling out the idea of a “revenge” or “revision” of history. The law was finally passed on 10 May 2001. It states that: “the transatlantic slave trade” and trade “in the Indian Ocean”, as well as slavery “perpetrated from the 15th century onwards […] against African, Amerindian, Madagascan, and Indian populations” constitute crimes against humanity. It also generated a reassessment of the place of the Atlantic slave trade in school curricula and research programmes. Finally, it provided for the establishment of a national day of commemoration of the “slave trade, slavery, and its abolition”, a date set at 10 May from 2006 onwards.
Unlike the first French so-called “memorial” law (the Gayssot Law of 13 July 1990), the legal scope of the Taubira Law is relatively limited. It drives a memorial framework but is not especially restrictive for the political authorities. Neither did it spark trials and convictions for historical negationism, as was the case with the Gayssot Law. However, the Taubira Law was criticized by a French slavery historian by the name of Olivier Grenouilleau, who claimed that by designating slavery as a “crime against humanity”, it established an equivalence with the genocides of the 20th century, especially that committed against the Jewish people. This equivalence is rejected by the historian who considers that the historical processes at work in both instances are of a very different nature. Nevertheless, the law’s symbolic significance is considered very strong by another historian Marcel Dorigny, precisely because of this categorization of slavery as a crime against humanity. The latter believes that this law puts slavery at the heart of public debate. For example, in January 2004, a Committee for the Memory and History of Slavery was created. In 2016, French President François Hollande announced its renewal as the Foundation for the Memory of Slavery, which was inaugurated in 2018. The presidency of this new foundation was entrusted to former Prime Minister and former Mayor of Nantes, Jean-Marc Ayrault. Finally, on 28 February 2017, a new “Overseas Real Equality” Act established a “national day in honour of the victims of colonial slavery”. The date of this memorial day was set for 23 May as it legitimizes the memorial perspective defended by the French West Indian collective of 1998. Finally, the law also added to the memorial debate on an international scale, in particular in 2001 in Durban, during the forum organized on the fringes of the United Nations World Conference against Racism.
Translated by Emma Lingwood
About the author
Simon Férelloc is a Master student in History at the University of Nantes. His researches are on the consequences of the French colonial politics and the revolutionary movements in the Antilles.
Christiane Taubira, L’Esclavage raconté à ma fille, Paris, Points, 2016.
Myriam Cottias, « Les vingt ans de la loi Taubira. Expériences, politiques et citoyenneté : un bilan », in Cahiers d’histoire. Revue d’histoire critique, n°151, 2021. http://journals.openedition.org/chrhc/17969.