Slavery and Reparation in France
By Debora Guidetti & Clara Grosset
May 10 is a national day in France for the commemoration of the abolition of slavery and for recognition of the law, adopted in May 2001, which recognized slavery as a crime against humanity. We spoke with Louis-Georges Tin, president of the Conseil Représentatif des Associations Noires de France (Representative Council of Black People in France) and author of the first two books in France on slavery reparations.
Around the world, organizations such as N’cobra in the U.S., Colonialism Reparation in Italy, and governments like Jamaica and Barbados are increasingly making the case that descendants or inhabitants of lands previously colonized and subjected to slavery should receive redress, including in the form of financial reparations. Why did you decide to start a campaign on slavery and reparation?
In France in 1848, slavery was abolished, and reparations were granted, but to the slave-masters, to make up for the loss of their slaves. The situation was even worse in Santo Domingo. A French colony until 1804, the western part of the island was liberated thanks to the courage of the slaves led by Toussaint Louverture, who fought against Napoléon and then became the new republic of Haiti.
But in 1825, the French army returned to Haiti, threatening the future of this newly independent nation. To avoid slavery, the country was forced to pay reparations to France equivalent to $21 billion. Haiti had to borrow money between 1825 and 1946 in order to repay the money they “owed” to France. In this scenario, the victims were paying reparations to the criminals. Is this really what we would term as justice?
What do you say to people who say “this work is coming too late” or “it is impossible to make up for slavery?”
Many millions of people were victims of the transatlantic trade. This trade was a crime against humanity, recognized as such in 2001 by the United Nations Conference in Durban. The enormity of a crime against humanity should not fade simply because time has passed. It remains legally possible to obtain reparations which can, to some extent, “compensate” for slavery.
Martin Luther King said that slavery is not only to be deprived of freedom (which cannot be atoned for); it is also to be deprived of salary (which it is possible to compensate for). And, with regards to Haiti, France could still, even now, easily pay back the ransom they previously imposed on the Haitians. Therefore, reparations are necessary on both moral and financial grounds.
While the slave owners left all their money to their children, the slaves could only leave poverty to their descendants. In other contexts, reparations were granted in different ways: land, scholarships, help to go back to Africa or museums. All these forms of reparation are legitimate.
Yours are the first two books in France on reparation. Could you tell us more about them?
I decided to publish these books, aware that there was no such existing work in France on these issues, in the form of an essay and an anthology of texts on slavery reparation, from Elizabeth Freeman to Desmond Tutu through to Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, and Wole Soyinka.
But I have to confess my particular interest in Elizabeth Freeman, who as a slave in 1781 sued her master in Massachusetts, obtaining freedom and reparations from the Court. This woman should be an icon of the fight for freedom and justice in the world.
What is the situation now in France regarding reparation?
As far as slavery is concerned, our country does not like to confront its own history. Just to give you an example, the first movie on slavery in the United States was released in 1910; the first one in France (Tropiques amers) was released in 2007.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that Europe’s colonial past began to be more fully recognized and explored in public discourse, and it wasn’t until 2001 that there was a law (the Taubira Law) which recognized the slave trade as a crime against humanity.
It was a huge battle to have slavery dealt with seriously in school books. Discussion of slavery and the role of European countries in this trade remains a taboo subject in many places and even today education systems do little to help.
Tell us about your organization’s work in France.
We have built a coalition with several other organizations, like the MIR or the Coffad, and together we are working on all kinds of events, legal trials, and campaigns to achieve our goals. The subject has been raised on television, on the radio several times, and on the front page of several national newspapers. This exposure was an important thing to have achieved.
We have been able to meet the prime minister on two occasions. Jean-Marc Ayrault decided to implement a political process on slavery reparation. This commitment was a historical statement of intent, as it was the first time ever in Europe that such a process was initiated. But thus far, he has not fulfilled his promise, and we still have to fight for justice.
In the meantime, we have commissioned a poll from Institut Français d’Opinion Publique which shows that 63 percent of French people living in overseas territories are in favor of reparations and 69 percent of interviewees do not know that there were reparations for slavery contributors. We announced these findings at a press conference on May 6, where we also presented additional actions related to this issue, including a video and music clip which was composed by Axiom, with the support of the Open Society Foundations.
How is your campaign connected to other countries?
With members of the Green Party of the European Parliament, we are organizing a whole week of action in Brussels in May, and we are also working with the African Union on this issue. At the end of March 2013, against the backdrop of the World Social Forum in Tunisia, we organized a workshop on workshop on colonization and reparation, along with other organizations from Brazil and Italy. We are in the process of creating an international coalition for reparation.
The Conseil Représentatif des Associations Noires de France is a grantee of the Open Society Fund to Counter Xenophobia.
Until October 2016, Debora Guidetti was a program manager with the Open Society Initiative for Europe.
Clara Grosset works as a senior program specialist at the Open Society Initiative for Europe.