Hollande’s ‘moral’ approach to slavery’s legacy is nothing but symbolism

Stage-managed diplomacy in Haiti. EPA/Alain Jocard

France has long grappled with the problem of reparations for slavery in its colonies, an issue that successive presidents have failed to address head-on. Now, President François Hollande has returned from a five-day tour of the Caribbean, set around May 10, France’s national day for commemorating slavery and its abolition.

Hollande visited France’s former slave colonies and current overseas departments of Martinique and Guadeloupe along with Haiti, celebrated for having freed itself from French slavery in 1804 to become the first black republic.

While his visit was viewed by some as marking the beginning of his re-election campaign, others considered it was not a success. Derided as gaffe-ridden by the French media following his speech in Guadeloupe and greeted with scepticism by groups lobbying for reparations, it showed just how deep the controversy over slavery’s legacy runs – and how poor the French government’s attempts to engage with the question of reparations have been.

Long shadow

Self-emancipation and abolition did not bring economic freedom and social equality to these islands. Reparations paid after the abolition of slavery in the French colonies in 1848 went not to the former slaves of Martinique and Guadeloupe, but rather to their ex-masters. Likewise, as a “ransom for independence”, Haiti was required to pay 150m gold francs to France between 1825 and 1947. This crippling debt served to compensate the French plantocracy for its losses – and it has had major repercussions for Haiti’s socio-economic development ever since.

More than 160 years later, power, land and capital wealth are still sequestered among the elites of the French Antilles, many of whom (notably in Martinique) are descended from the former slave-owning class.

The desire to redress the ongoing consequences of these histories for Antillean communities has resulted in numerous calls for reparations in contemporary France. Political and activist groups, including the International Movement for Reparations(MIR) and the International Committee for Black People (CIPN), have long been pushing reparations into the public eye.

The French media has largely misrepresented these claims as merely the illegitimate demands of “vengeful” and Francophobic minority groups, rather than an attempt to chart a more egalitarian course for the future. Despite this, recent years have seen a strengthening of the reparations movement, with the French Antilles (and French Guyana) joining forces with the Caricom Reparations Committee to call upon Europe’s former slave powers to engage in a ten-point development plan.

Reparation claims are not just brought against France from the Caribbean. Since Hollande’s election, activist groups based in France itself, notably the Representative Council for Black Associations, have been using May 10 to get the subject of reparations back into the spotlight.

This has left Hollande with no choice but to confront the issue. He has done so before by quoting Martiniquais poet and politician Aimé Césaire, stating that reparations were “impossible” since the slave past was “irreparable”. While Césaire’s words are morally incontestable, the impossible nature of repairing such a crime is no excuse for inaction given the very real impact that the legacy of slavery continues to have.

Moral, not material

In his May 10 2015 address to inaugurate Guadeloupe’s large-scale slave memorial project, entitled Mémorial ACTe, Hollande was ready to tackle the issue once more. But one group was conspicuously absent from the handpicked audience: despite having initiated the Memorial project in 1998, representatives of the CIPN had publicly refused to endorse Hollande’s visit thanks to his previous refusal to discuss future reparations.

For the most part – apart from a standing ovation after the superficially remarkable statement that he would “settle the debt” in Haiti – the remainder of his speech was greeted only with polite applause. Hollande took a few moments to bask in the glow of the dying applause, before acknowledging for the first time that the reparations debate was not yet over and conceding that, despite the irreparability of the crime, the “incommensurable legacy” of slavery still “remains to be explored”.

But no sooner was this said than the political machinery clicked into gear, with statements reassuring the French press that there was no intention of returning Haiti’s debt, merely intent to offer “moral” reparations.

Tripped up

Two days later, Hollande’s visit to Haiti was marred by demonstrations and scathing attacks by the Haitian media. No-one in Haiti has forgotten how Hollande’s predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, failed to make good on the €300m to the Haitian government after the 2010 earthquake.

Hollande’s speech in Port-au-Prince began badly when he tripped on the way to the podium. With the French press already calling his reference to repaying Haiti’s debt in Guadeloupe a political “gaffe”, he changed tack. This time, he stuck to encouraging French investment in the island and assisting with the modernisation of Haiti’s educational system through the supply of technologies and teaching training (all to be supplied by France, of course), as well as more opportunities for Haitian students to study in France.

Hollande comes a cropper in Port-au-Prince.

Combined with his celebratory emphasis on “la Francophonie”, the impression was less one of settling debts than of reinvigorating the kind of paternalism that underpinned colonial France’s “civilising mission”.

Pure symbolism

This cack-handed tour speaks volumes about France’s deep conflict over its slave-trading colonial past. On the one hand, his declaration in Guadeloupe appears to mark the arrival of the subject of reparations within political discourses after a long period of silence and refusal. But on the other his political backtracking in Haiti also shows how these tightly stage-managed occasions are little more than a distraction, to avoid engaging directly with reparation demands.

Instead, May 10 was turned into a political platform to manipulate these demands by giving the appearance that concrete steps towards reparation are being taken where they simply are not.

This was done not only by bypassing the content of the actual claims being made, but also by using media-facing events as an opportunity to define “reparations” (moral or otherwise) according to France’s own agenda and a very vague understanding of the terms.

The French government’s actions are therefore still symbolic above all else. Hollande summarised his position by saying: “The only debt worth settling is the debt to ensure the advancement of humanity.” What this actually means in real terms remains, as always, just beyond the horizon – another empty promise, just like those that litter the history of French Republic’s relationship with its Caribbean islands.

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