Paris’s only significant slavery memorial — a bronze statue of broken chains — sits in front of an ornate building once owned by the Bank of France. (James McAuley/The Washington Post)

The French capital is a city awash with memorials and monuments, testaments to the triumphs and tragedies of a nation’s past.

These storied sites reflect France’s appreciation of its history, but one chapter has always been missing: any significant mention of the country’s notorious involvement in the slave trade.

That will soon change. President François Hollande announced this month the establishment of a major foundation to create a slavery memorial and museum in Paris.

“I wish to give to France an institution it still lacks, a foundation for the memory of the slave trade, slavery and its abolition,” he told reporters.

The government’s announcement comes after years of frustration in France’s black community — one of the largest in Europe — over what they consider the effacement of a traumatic history.

A statue of the acclaimed writer Alexandre Dumas, formerly a namesake of the square before Nazi occupation. Dumas's father was the son of a French man and a Haitian women who was a slave. (James McAuley/TWP)

France officially recognized slavery as a “crime against humanity” in 2001 but did little beyond that.

For Louis-Georges Tin, the president of the Representative Council of France’s Black Associations (CRAN), which led the campaign for the new foundation, the long public failure to grapple with slavery and its legacy sends a clear message.

“It clearly means that black lives do not matter,” he said in an interview.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, France was among the major European slave-trading nations, capturing and selling an estimated 1.4 million people before leaders outlawed slavery in 1848.

The country’s coffers grew rich from colonial conquests in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Caribbean, where slave labor generated the commodities that French merchants then sold in Europe.

When metropolitan France finally outlawed slavery — a generation before the United States — liberation brought freedom only in theory for many blacks in French territories overseas.

“Slavery was abolished, and the old slaves became citizens,” said the historian Frédéric Regent, a renowned expert on the French slave trade. “They even elected deputies. But the plantation economy continued with the same masters, who then became ‘employers.’ ”

“What was different between that and slavery?” Tin asked. “Nothing.”

This form of economic subjugation overseas persisted well into the 1960s, when France, crippled by two world wars, lost its former empire. Many argue that the injustice persists today in the form of socioeconomic disparity between young whites and blacks, increasingly confined to peripheral suburbs and low-paying jobs.

“It’s from slavery that we have the discrimination we have today and the racism we see in France today,” said Myriam Cottias, a historian and member of the government-sponsored foundation, in a telephone interview from Martinique.

“It’s not yet totally done in France. France has many, many institutional links to slavery.”

At present, the only significant slavery memorial in Paris is a large bronze sculpture of broken chains that sits in front of an ornate building once owned by the Bank of France, heavily implicated in the slave economy.

Tucked away in an elegant neighborhood square on Paris’s Right Bank, the statue is something people pass but do not really see. Few even know of its existence.

There is also the Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery in Nantes, the mid-size city on France’s Atlantic coast that was once the country’s major slave trading hub. But this, for Tin, is something altogether different.

“France has a memory of abolition,” he said, “but not of slavery.”

By comparison, other traumatic chapters in French history are well represented in the physical landscape of the capital and in the curricula of French public schools.

After decades of suppressing the memory of the Holocaust, the French government has made a considerable effort to apologize for its participation in the Nazi genocide during World War II, when French officials assisted in the deportation of Jews to concentration camps in Eastern Europe.

The state inaugurated a Holocaust Memorial Museum and research center in 2005, and black plaques adorn most of the known sites where Jewish children were arrested during the Nazi occupation.

According to Tin, this seeming disparity creates a politics of competitive resentment among different minority communities, which begin to suspect that the government deems their particular histories as somehow less important.

“Black anti-Semitism is growing in France, and it’s not exactly the same as the other types,” he said. “It’s usually rooted in the comparison between the two memories.”

That “comparison” was a constant, if subtle, theme in the performances of the French-Cameroonian comedian Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, whose flagrant anti-Semitism often centered on the idea of the Holocaust as a “dominant religion” in contemporary French society.

But the specific words Dieudonné chose to express the age-old anti-Semitic trope of a global Jewish political and economic conspiracy were particularly revealing. France, he said, is dominated by “Jewish slave drivers.”

That French authorities responded by charging Dieudonné only served to exacerbate the situation: France has a law criminalizing Holocaust denial but few other types of hate speech.

On the whole, Jewish organizations and community leaders have been emphatically supportive of the push for a slavery museum and foundation, joining forces with Tin’s campaign from the beginning.

“The two histories come from different epochs, and they don’t have the same places in society,” said prominent journalist Antoine Spire, a leader of one such organization that pushed for the foundation. “But of course it’s important to improve the public spaces.”

A demand for public space is the essence of this campaign, and Tin said that a task force will submit, within six months, recommendations to the government for where the museum will be housed.

One idea — albeit a stretch, he said — is the Hôtel de la Marine, a prominent 18th-century monolith on the Place de la Concorde, the literal and figurative heart of Paris. The structure once housed the Ministry of Colonies.

As he put it: “ ‘Concorde’ means reconciliation.”

Read more