The Taubira law and historians

On May 10, 2001, the Taubira law, recognizing trafficking and slavery as crimes against humanity, was finally adopted by the French Parliament. However, it was not until four years later that she became famous, following the Pétré-Grenouilleau affair, and more generally the controversies over "the laws of memory". Another consequence of the Taubira law is the choice by the President of the Republic, Jacques Chirac, to make May 10 the day to commemorate the memories and abolition of the slave trade and slavery.

The Taubira law

Composed of five articles, the law is an initiative of Christiane Taubira, Member of Parliament for Guyana. The main points relate to the recognition as a crime against humanity of "The transatlantic slave trade as well as the slave trade in the Indian Ocean on the one hand, and slavery on the other hand, perpetrated from the 15th century, in the Americas and the Caribbean, in the Indian Ocean and in Europe against African, Amerindian, Malagasy and Indian populations ” ; on the obligation to give "To the slave trade and slavery the place they deserve" in school curricula, but also in research programs in history and the humanities. In addition, the law should serve to extend this recognition to the Council of Europe and the UN.

The O. Pétré-Grenouilleau case

The law is not particularly contested at the time it appears in the Official Journal. It was only four years later that she indirectly sparked the controversy. Historian Olivier Pétré-Grenouilleau publishes an essay, The slave trade (Gallimard, 2004), which quickly became a bestseller, and obtained several prestigious awards. Some believe that this success is mainly due to the fact that Pétré-Grenouilleau, implicitly, would go against a certain repentance by addressing the treaties as a whole, and by giving a consistent place to the Arab and intra-African treaties. He would thus restore a kind of balance, and break a taboo. His work is defended by many historians, and it should be noted that it is published by Gallimard, therefore by Pierre Nora. Olivier Pétré-Grenouilleau is still contested by specialists in colonial history, who notably question his figures on Arab and African treaties, and some of them ascribe dubious intentions to him. His work is, it is true, politically recovered, in particular his famous figures of non-European drafts. It would thus be an indirect way of clearing Europeans through customs, or at least of minimizing the Atlantic slave trade.

However, it is not the book in question - contrary to what is often thought - that triggers the historian's strongest controversy and legal problems, but an interview with O. Pétré-Grenouilleau at Sunday newspaper, June 12, 2005. He criticizes the Taubira law, but by making a decisive confusion between crime against humanity and genocide, while placing on the same level the anti-Semitic statements of a Dieudonne, and the aim of the law: “This accusation against Jews originated in the black American community in the 1970s. It is rebounding today in France. This goes beyond the Dieudonné case. It is also the problem of the Taubira law which considers the trafficking of blacks by Europeans as a "crime against humanity", thus including a comparison with the Shoah. The slave trades are not genocides ”. From there, it is the excitement: the historian is vilified by different West Indian associations, led by people like Claude Ribbe or Patrick Karam, and he is finally sued, on the basis of the Taubira law. The Pétré-Grenouilleau affair lasted several months (see the chronology here), until the various complaints were withdrawn in early 2006 but, in a very specific context, it caused other collateral effects.

Freedom for history against CVUH

The Pétré-Grenouilleau affair erupts following another controversy, that of article 4 of the law of February 2005 on the need to integrate into school curricula "The positive role of colonization", an article its supporters say "inspired" by Article 2 of the Taubira Law. The two cases end up forcing historians to speak out, and two camps are formed, even though they share a common concern for the political recoveries of history. On the one hand, around Pierre Nora, the association Freedom for history ; on the other, around Gérard Noiriel, the Vigilance Committee for Public Uses of History (CVUH).

The Taubira law as such is mainly criticized by Freedom for history, which is more broadly in favor of an abrogation of all “memorial laws” (since the Gayssot law), which the CVUH is not asking for. Personalities like Françoise Chandernagor blame the Taubira law for guilty confusion over its definition of trafficking and slavery, or more precisely of those who practiced it. Indeed, Article 1er evokes the trafficking practiced "From the 15th century" ; however, France did not really enter the slave trade until the end of the 17th century. Can France legislate on crimes against humanity practiced by others (notably the Portuguese)? If the law concerns Europe, why not present it to the European Parliament? In addition, article 3 seeks to have this definition recognized at the UN level, which would suggest that only trafficking practiced by Westerners could be considered a crime against humanity. And here we come back to the reasons for the success of Pétré-Grenouilleau's book, which studied the slave trade as a set of global history. More broadly, the definition given by the Taubira law is confused, on the chronology, the areas and the populations concerned. A law condemning trafficking and slavery more broadly might have been better received.

The other criticism we hear concerns article 2, seen as an injunction to give "The consequent place they deserve" to these crimes against humanity in school curricula, but especially in those of research in history and the human sciences. Policy-driven curriculum content raises questions, and what exactly does "Consequent place" ? As for the intervention of the law in research programs, one can also wonder if this is a good idea. On the other hand, this same article encourages better cooperation at the level of the different sources, and above all does not give "oriented" instructions on the way in which to teach these questions, unlike article 4 of the law of February 2005, who insisted on the "Positive".

Around Pierre Nora, Freedom for history is therefore at the forefront of the Taubira law, but more ambiguous on the article concerning "The positive role of colonization" ; indeed, they support the deletion of this article if the Taubira law is also repealed. The CVUH, for its part, refuses to segment these questions and, while it opposes article 4 of the law of February 2005, it is on the other hand not for a history reserved for historians, but rather focuses on "To decipher the different uses that are made of history in the public space". If, officially, Freedom for history refuses any political role to the historian, the position of the CVUH is on the contrary for the participation of historians in the democratic debate, considering that they do not have to "To regulate memory", or to place themselves as the holders of the Truth.

Taubira law today

The controversy gradually ceased during 2006. If the article on "The positive role of colonization" was eventually repealed, but the Taubira law is not. This, despite its flaws and ambiguities, has nevertheless helped to give some place to the study of these questions in teaching. Indeed, trafficking and slavery are taught in middle school, in the fourth grade. And contrary to what the biggest detractors of this law might think, the Arab and especially African slave trade has not been forgotten since it is discussed in the Fifth, in the chapter "Views on Africa". The Taubira law also allowed the recognition of the memory of the victims of slavery, and their descendants, integrating them fully into the collective memory of the French nation.

This led, five years after the passage of the law and following heated new debates, to the establishment of a date of commemoration of the memories and the abolition of the slave trade and slavery, on May 10. While this question now seems appeased (we no longer hear too much from Claude Ribbe, for example), that of the instrumentalization of history by politics, and the history / memory confusion, remain relevant today.

To read

- C. Coquery-Vidrovitch, Political issues of colonial history, Agone, 2009.

- P. Nora, F. Chandernagor, Freedom for history, CNRS editions, 2008.

Video: Christiane Taubira: Taking the moral high ground (May 2021).