PARIS (AP) — French President Francois Hollande honoured the memory of millions of slaves in an inaugural visit Sunday to a memorial in the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, where black men and women were sold to work on sugar cane plantations from the 17th to 19th centuries.
The visit has revived the debate over the consequences of France's slave trade in the region. Some angry voices are pushing for France to pay reparations, an issue that Hollande has thus far avoided.
The Caribbean Center for the Expression and Memory of the Slave Trade and Slavery, known as the Memorial ACTe, is to be inaugurated in the city of Pointe-a-Pitre in the presence of Caribbean officials and the heads of state of Senegal, Mali and Benin — all former French African colonies.
The 77,000 square-foot (7,153 square-meter) complex is worth 83 million euros ($93 million) and has a symbolic black facade, representing the millions of victims of slavery. The permanent exhibition, which is due to open to the public in July, illustrates the history of slavery through hundreds of documents and objects.
Local authorities expect some 150,000 visitors per year to the memorial, which is meant to "contribute toward healing wounds of the past" according to the president of the Regional Council of Guadeloupe, Victorin Lurel.
However, a local organization which began the museum project in 1998 has decided not to attend the inauguration to protest against Hollande's refusal to discuss the issue of financial reparations.
"What we want is for Hollande to apologize in the name of the French people and for him to look into the reparations issue," Jacqueline Jacqueray, president of the International Committee of Black People, told The Associated Press.
"Slavery is part of France's history and France must dare to face its history," she said.
France's law has recognized the slave trade and slavery as a crime against humanity since 2001.
In 2013, Hollande acknowledged the country's "debt" to Africa because of slave trade and the "baneful role played by France." But he also said that this history "cannot be the subject of a transaction."
Last year, leaders of Caribbean nations adopted a broad plan to try to get apologies and reparations from European nations that practiced slavery such as France, Britain and the Netherlands. Caricom, the political grouping of 15 countries and dependencies, has created the Caribbean Reparations Commission to push the issue.
France's monarchy took possession of some Caribbean islands in the 17th century, and, in 1685, King Louis XIV established the "Code Noir," a decree that defined the conditions of slavery in the colonial empire.
France abolished slavery in 1848.