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France Observes Abolition of Slavery More Than 150 Years Ago

France has become the first European country to officially commemorate the victims of slavery, with a new remembrance day. But France's history of slavery and colonialism continues to stir controversy.

In a ceremony at the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, French President Jacques Chirac said slavery's legacy continued to leave traces of racism in the West, but he also struck a positive tone.

Mr. Chirac said that by commemorating the abolition of slavery, France is also celebrating its diverse, yet united, ethnicities. Diversity was a source of France's strength, he said, which it can and should be proud of.

France became the first European country to abolish slavery in 1794. But just eight years later, Napoleon re-established slavery. Not until 1848 did slavery end in France, which had been Europe's fourth-largest slave trader.

This year's commemoration also marks a law passed five years ago, making slavery a crime against humanity. The remembrance day is being marked in towns and cities around the nation, and French schools have been encouraged to discuss the issue in classes.

But the day is also drawing fresh attention to allegations of discrimination against blacks and other minorities in France, not to mention the country's controversial colonial past. Those issues surfaced six months ago, when riots spread across the nation.

And some black activists, like Patrick Lozes, head of the Representative Council for Black Associations, believe the government should have been more active in drawing public attention to this new slavery remembrance day.

In an interview on French radio, Lozes said it is important France advances bringing all of its citizens along. Nobody disputes slavery's legacy, he added, but it is important people know how long it lasted.