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As France Examines Slave-Trading Past, Corporations Are Unusually Silent

FILE - Protesters demonstrate near the U.S. Embassy in Paris. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)
FILE - Protesters demonstrate near the U.S. Embassy in Paris. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)

As Black Lives Matter protests around the world topple statues and target streets and buildings linked to slavery, banks and businesses are increasingly acknowledging ties to the grim history. But critics say corporate soul-searching is not happening in France.

AXA Insurance Company, Banque de France and the maker of Hennessy Cognac have one thing in common, according to a new investigation by France’s Le Monde newspaper: All are tied, directly or indirectly, with slavery.

Le Monde reports these are among a number of French corporations that have not acknowledged such links. At a time when companies have become socially and environmentally responsible, the newspaper wrote, why not accept their historical responsibility?

AXA and the Banque de France could either not be reached or did not immediately respond to VOA.

Bordeaux-based activist Karfa Diallo, who conducts tours of the city’s slave trading past, said he’s not surprised by the silence. His association, Memoires et Partages, has also tried to contact local businesses with similar historical links – with no success.

Luis-Georges Tin, honorary president of Black activist umbrella association CRAN, offers one explanation.

“France is a very arrogant country,” Tin said. “In the elite, most people will tell you, ‘We are the country of human rights. So, why should we apologize when we’re so great?’”

France ended slavery and the slave trade in the 19th century. But there was a time when it was one of Europe’s top slave-trading countries. So was nearby England.

Now, a growing number of prominent British banks and businesses are beginning to acknowledge past links to the slave business. In the United States, too, the Black Lives Matter protests have cast new scrutiny on businesses and places like New York’s Wall Street, which was once a slave market.

Still, French historian Myriam Cottias says she can understand this nation’s corporate silence. It can sometimes be hard to draw clear historical links with French businesses today.

“It's not clear, even for me, the exact organization from the slavery (times) to the present. And maybe it’s one of the reasons why there’s no acknowledgment or apology.”

Still, activists say France is beginning to face its past in other ways. A slavery museum is to be built in Paris. And a new foundation for the memory of slavery was launched earlier this year. A Banque de France subsidiary is helping to finance it, in what some say is at least an indirect acknowledgment of history.