France yesterday commemorated for the first time its abolition of slavery more than 150 years ago, which marked the formal end of a practice it has since branded a crime against humanity.
President Jacques Chirac was to attend a ceremony in the Luxembourg Gardens in the center of Paris with his prime minister, Dominique de Villepin.
There, he was to inaugurate a temporary work by a French artist featuring a bamboo arch dotted with photographs of people of different backgrounds, which is to be replaced later by a monument.
The Pantheon, a neo-classic building nearby that houses the remains of famous French figures, was to provide free entry to the tombs of those who fought against slavery.
Chief among them was Victor Schoelcher, an abolitionist in the 19th century who argued against France's practice of slavery in its West Indies islands to produce sugar.
Schoelcher's struggle contributed to a decree issued on April 27, 1848, which definitively abolished slavery in France and its colonies and returned freedom to some 260,000 slaves.
Several attempts have been made to establish a nationwide commemoration to mark abolition, but it was only in January that Chirac declared May 10 as the annual day to remember victims of slavery.
Crime against humanity
"Slavery fed racism. When people tried to justify the unjustifiable, that was when the first racist theories were elaborated. Racism is a crime of the heart and the spirit ... which is why the memory of slavery remains a living wound for some of our fellow citizens," he said at the time.
May 10 was chosen because it was the day in 2001 that the legislature approved a law recognizing slavery as a crime against humanity.
France's overseas territories, which have a mainly black population, already have annual slavery memorial days.
Chirac's decision to declare a slavery abolition day followed a bitter row over a law passed last year which said France's colonial past had a "positive role" on its former possessions. That part of the law was eventually scrapped by France's constitutional council.
Questions over slavery and France's colonial history have become especially sensitive in the country since the weeks of rioting last November among mainly black and Arab youths.