Hollande rejects demand for slavery reparations

Representative Council of Black Associations to file lawsuit against French state-owned bank

French president François Hollande attending a ceremony at the Luxembourg Gardens to mark the abolition of slavery and to pay tribute to the victims of the slave trade in Paris yesterday. Photograph: Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

French president François Hollande attending a ceremony at the Luxembourg Gardens to mark the abolition of slavery and to pay tribute to the victims of the slave trade in Paris yesterday. Photograph: Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

 


“What happened happened,” French president François Hollande said yesterday when he rejected demands from a black group that the French state pay reparations for almost 200 years of slavery, during which French traders deported some two million Africans.

“History does not erase itself,” Mr Hollande continued. “You cannot rub it out. It cannot be the object of transactions deriving from accounting that would in any case be impossible to establish.”

Mr Hollande spoke at the seventh annual commemoration of the slave trade, slavery and abolition. The Representative Council of Black Associations (Cran) had announced it would file a lawsuit yesterday against French state-owned bank Caisse des dépôts et de consignations (CDC).


Colonists compensated
In 1825, France threatened to recolonise the fledgling independent state of Haiti if it did not compensate colonists for property lost when Haiti obtained independence in 1804. Haiti paid the money through the CDC.

“The poverty of Haiti is due to the payment of these 90 million gold francs, which forced the country to indebt itself for decades,” Cran president Louis-Georges Tin told Le Monde newspaper.

The group says the sum is equivalent to $21 billion (€16.2 billion) today.

France defined slavery as a crime against humanity on May 10th, 2001, with a law named after the present justice minister, Christiane Taubira, who is from French Guiana. In the late 2000s, French conservatives rebelled at what they termed left-inspired “repentance”.

Ms Taubira is also the author of France’s recently passed law on same-sex marriage.


Overseas territories
In his speech, Mr Hollande enumerated the measures taken by France to ensure slavery is not forgotten. The overseas territories of Mayotte, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Guiana and La Réunion have built monuments and observe other memorial days in addition to May 10th.

There are at least five memorials in metropolitan France. Two more will be inaugurated in the Paris suburbs of Sarcelles and Saint-Denis on May 23rd. In 2015, the biggest centre in the world dedicated to the slave trade and slavery will open in a former sugar factory in Guadeloupe.

Mr Hollande called slavery “this monstrous undertaking . . . this outrage done by France to her own honour and her own greatness, with the black code of 1685, which reduced slaves to the status of furniture”.

Cran has published two books arguing its case for reparations. Mr Tin notes that the state compensated slave owners for their losses when slavery was abolished in 1848.

Other precedents include reparations paid by Germany to France after the first World War, and the US government’s payment of $1 million and 44 acres of land to native Alaskans in 1971.

In the late 1990s, the CDC restored the assets of Jews whose property was confiscated during the German occupation of France.