Revolutionary Reparations?


Laying on a close examination of French state politics of “memorialization,” PanAfroRevolutionary collective Cases Rebelles lays ground for a radical take on slavery reparations. Neither capitalistic nor symbolic, they posit transnational Black and Indigenous liberation as a necessary condition for redress.

In May 2015, Angela Davis was the guest of honor at the annual commemoration of the abolition of slavery in the city of Nantes, a city which, for years, has been relentlessly working to craft a revisionist version of the history of slavery — particularly about the part it played in it. During her stay in Nantes, she made a statement about reparations: “Some people talk about the necessity of paying financial compensations as reparations for the harm done by slavery. But I think reparations would have a greater impact if we thought of them in terms of new institutions: free education, free health care […] Institutions that would give more space to social justice, regardless of race or origin” (our translation).

How could social justice, which is in principle a basic duty of any state towards its population, be a substitute for reparations for a crime against humanity which targeted a specific human group and continent, namely Black people from Africa? With her statement, the U.S. activist was offering her radical credentials to prop up a wide-ranging political project of substitution: mollifying memorializations, the “devoir de mémoire” (the duty to remember) as substitutes for an unflinching and concrete examination of the multiple, age-old crimes that profoundly shape France and the territories it colonized. Furthermore, Davis pulled off the amazing feat of excluding from this discussion the descendants of enslaved people who already have a hard time making themselves heard, stuck that they are between the erudite discourse of the so-called white specialists and the constant accusations of self-victimization hurled at them by the opponents of “repentance” (a derogatory word used by French reactionaries to discredit any attempt to acknowledge the crimes of colonialism).

The next day, in Port-au-Prince, Haitian people, who did not seem to share Ms. Davis’ opinion, greeted French president François Hollande chanting “Reparation!” and “Restitution!” Hollande had made a promise: “When I come to Haiti, I will, for my part, settle the debt that we have.” Of course, it was never part of his agenda to pay back the unspeakable ransom of 90 million gold francs that was imposed on the first Black republic when it proclaimed its independence and which has been weighing heavily on Haiti’s economic development to this day. Hollande had only planned to shake a few hands, blurt out excuses with a perfunctory demeanor and hop on his return flight. In France, any serious grasp of reparations goes against state strategies that are crystalized in the 2001 “Taubira Law“ (named after the Guyanese member of Parliament, former pro-independence activist turned social-democrat, Christiane Taubira) recognizing the Atlantic slave trade as a crime against humanity: a lot of memorializing, universalist rhetoric, mention of the incommensurability of the crime, talk of reconciliation and a “citoyenniste” discourse for the descendants of enslaved people, both in France and in the still colonized territories — “citoyenniste” refers here to the ideology of the forced use of a construed concept of citizenship to quell any radical aspirations for emancipation. What is crucial here is to remain strictly within the realm of mere discourse, of solemnities, of the symbolic and to stay the furthest away from any concrete measures. Except for the creation of useless and labyrinthine committees and a few memory spaces full of untruths and universalizing propaganda, spaces like the Memorial ACTe (Caribbean Centre of Expressions and Memory of the Slave trade and Slavery) in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe.

In 2017, the former president of the CNMHE (National Committee for the Memory and the History of Slavery) and at the time head of Repairs, Myriam Cottias had also voiced in an interview to the CNRS journal her reluctance about awarding financial reparations. She furthermore intended to make the question of slave-owners receiving compensations from France more complex: “Things aren’t as binary as we sometimes think: amongst the people who were compensated, we find free people of color. They were freed slaves who had in their turn become slave-owners. We tend to see slavery only through the lens of the white/Black racial opposition, but we forget that it was also an economic and social system.” The “free people of color” argument and the “Africans selling other Africans” argument are cut in the same cloth: there will always be collaborators, it does not alter the intrinsically racial aspect of slavery. As for the rest of the quote, it verges on tautology: a system is always both economic and social. Interestingly, she had insisted a few lines above that “heavily racialized social relations still shape to this day American society,” as if there were not as heavily racialized in France.

Working on colonial history and justice within a French institutional framework is a conundrum since it threatens to blow up the republican, colorblind paradigm — a paradigm that the elite (both intellectual and political) has been excessively using so that they can bury their heads in the sand about the countless structural inequalities that stems from it.

That an overwhelming guiltiness should fall on white Europe, on industrialists, on ship owners, on cities like Nantes and on ship-owning French families who tremble at the mere threat of their names being publicized seems an unbearable idea. To contemplate that we should connect this history with our present conditions, namely that history should meet sociology appears to them as the worst case scenario.

The imperialist debates about the restitution of artworks that were looted in Africa are enlightening too. While restitution should be a prerequisite to any talk about reparations of the damage done, the thieves-looters have the nerve to set up inquiry committees to assess if African countries are capable of housing the artworks in decent conditions and pontificate on the exceptional inalienability of French law on public collections. In the meantime, the theft goes on. The simple act of handing back seems to be unfathomably complicated. All this reveals a deep-rooted attachment to property, to the looted goods, just like the Haitian debt. Just like the colonized territories that Guadeloupe, Martinique, Guiana, Réunion, Mayotte, Kanaky, Tahiti still remain to this day. What is at stake here for France is to never release its iron grip.

The issue of reparations cannot only be summed up as a solely economic question but the combined refusal of nation-states and capitalist slavers reveal the radical lack of sincerity and the emptiness of the state’s approach. This should convince us — if we ever needed any convincing — to give up on the childish illusion of state reparations.We can only rely on independent initiatives, on transnational collaborations and on the continuous building of a balance of power, to work on reparations as a whole: psychological, moral, social, economic, cultural, religious and so on. If one tackles the history of slavery fully, it amounts to nothing less than a declaration of war on the French nation, its glue and its citizenship. This history resists any saving and amending of the Republic, of its police and racist prisons and its imperialist corporations. This history radically resists any desire of taking capitalist catch-up sessions which is something that transpires in the demands of some reparations proponents. This history viscerally resists the anti-migrant rhetoric of the U.S. pseudo-movement ADOS which willingly ignores the way anti-Blackness functions on a global scale.

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Screenshots of a video showing Martiniquean activists in Schoelcher and Fort-de-France, toppling two statues of Victor Schœlcher, the French politician who wrote the decree that abolished slavery in French colonies in 1848 and ‘generously’ compensated the settler beneficiaries of slave labor, whose descendants, the békés, are still the wealthiest exploitants in Guadeloupe and Martinique. / Courtesy of the activists.

To us, reparations are in no case exclusively owed to descendants of enslaved people — a restriction that states harness as a means of division — they also apply to the territories on the African continent that were victims of a demographic drain that reached industrial proportions. And let us not forget that countless deported and enslaved Black Africans never have descendants who lived to see the abolition of slavery. 

Our vision for reparations couldn’t care less about exceptions, about rich Black people or presidents, or clichés about Africans selling other Africans. Our vision does not care for what the State allows us and the crumbs it gives us. Our vision should irk. Clash. Disrupt the stiff expressions during insincere commemorations. Collide with continuums and status quo. Bring together. Cleave. Explode. Expropriate. And of course, it may be violent. And beautiful. Beautiful like a statue of  Schœlcher crashing down on the scorching asphalt of Fort-de-France, in the month of May.

When the State Takes Care of Business ///

Tous nés en 1848” (“We were all born in 1848”). This chilling catchphrase alone, which was coined by the 150th anniversary of the abolition interministerial mission, encapsulates the project of rewriting history and consequently, the national narrative. The ideological designs behind this birth proclamation are crystal clear: overnight, the slave empire was supposed to have turned into an abolitionist republic eager for fraternity. And the fact that slaveholders were compensated by the French state after the 1848 abolition, that’s a mere trifle!

On May 23 of that same year, 1998, ten of thousands of people took part in a silent march through the streets of Paris. This grassroot counter-action was a turning point in the way the history of slavery was broached, as it marked the sudden entry of another memory of slavery in French public spaces and discussions: the memory of afro-descendants — the “sons and daughters of Slaves” as some placards read. This power move would prove to be a decisive pressure in order to convince that a form of recognition of slavery as a crime against humanity must be acknowledged formally in the legislation. However, this “dissenting” vision carried by the Comité Marche du 23 mai 1998 (created after the march) and state policies eventually converged, imposing the terms of the debate to this day and what is off-limits. The favored approach, the consensus is the inclusion within a corrected “roman national” (the national narrative). The “memorializing” approach took roots as follows: during talks with the socialist parliamentary caucus, the dubious expression “devoir de mémoire” (duty to remember) acted as a consensus-winning magic formula for Christiane Taubira as she had to deal with the outrage some felt at the use of the expression “crime against humanity” and the word “deported“ (the latter was expunged from the bill in the end).

In 1999, Minister of Justice Elisabeth Guigou, backed the bill, stating: “Indeed, to call slavery a crime against humanity, is first to settle the debt towards all the sacrificed generations and their descendants who still bear the marks of this suffering. It’s what we call the duty to remember.” Article 5 about “a committee of qualified people” being “tasked with assessing the damage suffered and examining the conditions of reparations due as a result of this crime” was removed. On May 21, 2001, the Taubira Law unanimously passed in Parliament — a testament to how innocuous it was. In government discourse, “le devoir de mémoire” becomes a substitute for reparations. The descendants of enslaved people will have to be satisfied with the commemorative events of abolition and the addition of a few chapters in school curricula. The State has neither conscience nor morals, it only has interests. The rest is mere decorum and cosmetics. It is a mistake to think that the Taubira Law just finished off the podium. To think that “it’s better than nothing” is another one. This is all part of the same criminal dynamic.

1848, year zero, it is the same sleight of hand that is performed in Nantes (where some members of our collective live) with the Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery, a monument which enshrines the city’s supposed involvement in the abolition of slavery. The reality is that the ship-owners of the main French slave trading port carried on their transatlantic slave expeditions to deport captive Africans for 13 years, well after it was made illegal in 1817. And they did so on a massive scale.

The election of the Socialist mayor Jean-Marc Ayrault in 1992 ushered in a long campaign to overhaul the city’s identity, with the goal of gaining international recognition. It’s within this framework that Nantes’ revisionism has to be understood. “To tell our history […] without looking for culprits,” Ayrault would conclude to the great relief of the ship-owning families. Rather than making sure that the truth emerges and circulates, Nantes banked on empty symbols, spurious memorializing, collective emotion and a reconciliatory rhetoric. The specifications for the memorial were simple: no guilt, no repentance, no reparations. It was inaugurated in 2012 and was even hailed as a courageous initiative! Fitting perfectly in the colonial urban marketing of the town, the slave-trading past buried in the memorial, an underground passageway, is rather muted. The most meaningful data — the name of the ships and the dates of departure — are to be found above, on the surface, inside small glass cobblestones on which you can easily step without noticing. Nothing unsettling or accusatory… Once the visit is over, the self-absolved city, France and whiteness can rush light-heartedly to the giant mechanical elephant of the Royal de Luxe street theatre company — one of the many colonial elements in the city’s touristic apparatus, the elephant trudges all day long for the tourist’s pleasure.

Is it any wonder that in 2019, during the introduction to a movie about the 1947 Malagasy Uprising, a white city employee was all smiles when she spoke and announced that that the city had planned recreational activities around slavery, notably an escape game? France carried out a massacre in Madagascar and the room was full of the heirs to these violent parts of history but what mattered above all was to make it more playful for whites. The retraumatization of Black people is a non-issue to them. When the State is involved, suffering becomes fictional, just like the specificity of anti-Black racism, which unsurprisingly always goes unmentioned. As a matter of fact, some local activists are bitterly disappointed in the rather odd absence of the Black Code amongst the texts spotlighted in the underground passageway of Nantes’ memorial.

“Even the French State is for reparations!” Guadeloupean trade union leader and pro-independence activist Elie Domota quipped in 2016, as he called out the farce that is the state’s “reparationism.” “As soon as they open a museum or they put a chair somewhere, they tell you that these are reparations and they’re done with you.” Some changes in a textbook, a renamed street, a consultation on restitutions, etc. If the State should but lift a finger, it’s to its credit, as if you were congratulating a serial killer for being kind enough to hold a door open for you. In the meantime, despite the petits fours and the gospel songs, the crime goes on.

The Crime Goes On ///

The same month of May when Angela Davis was enlightening all the swells of Nantes, we met in the same city, this time during a maroon commemoration, Ramata Dieng, the co-founder of the Collectif Vies Volées (Stolen Lives) and sister of Lamine Dieng, a young Black man who was killed by the police in 2007. She had been invited by local reparations activists. Over the years she’s been fighting for justice and meeting people, Ramata started seeing a direct thread running between the absence of justice and reparations for the crimes of slavery and the enduring devaluation of Black and other non-white lives of which her brother’s killing is a direct consequence. She got in touch with the MIR-France (International Movement for Reparations) and joined it as one of its members. The association has never stopped supporting her fight for truth and justice ever since — for instance, the MIR donated to the crowdfunding campaign for the post-production of our documentary movie Dire à Lamine (2018). “As long as there are no reparations for this crime against humanity, I think that this kind of sub-humanity in which we were plunged will continue to have consequences. Consequences that bear the name of Lamine, Théo and the young Traoré and so on and so forth” historian, activist and member of the MIR Rosa Amelia Plumelle-Uribe explains. This dehumanization is also conducted in the morbid European policies against Africans in exile: police harassment, bone tests, forced expulsions, unlawful mass incarceration in CRA (Administrative Retention Centers), the abandonment of minors in violation with all international laws protecting children, the failure to assist the castaways in the Mediterranean, the funding and involvement in the Libyan Hell rife with tortures, rapes, imprisonment, slavery and ransoming.When there are no culprits, what then counts as a crime? If, additionally, these kidnappers, hostage-takers and executioners were paid compensations like in Haiti, Guadeloupe, Martinique, or even in Surinam, what stands in the way of the crime being repeated over and over again?

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Screenshots from a video of the 15th occurence of “Konvwa Pou Réparasyon” by the MIR-Martinique (International Movement for Reparations) in May 2015.

When slavery was abolished, decrees were issued to extend the ruthless exploitation of former slaves and to keep them de facto under the yoke of the plantation owners. The colony adopted repressive structures: police, workhouses designed to punish vagrancy, work record books, mandatory indentured agreements and so on. Through the system of indentured labor, which aimed at thwarting the demands of black workers, plantation owners recruited, via the colonial administration, an Asian and African workforce. Among them were Indians, Chinese people as well as captive or enslaved Africans who had been bought back then sent to the Caribbean. Forced recruitment, unclear contract terms, breaches of the duration of the contract as well as of the right to return were commonplace. And the working conditions were very similar to those in place during the not so bygone days of slavery. How could it have been another way in a context where former slave-owners and slave traders had not been criminalized? A century later, the gruelling working conditions remained tainted by the history of slavery, notably through the unfair system of piecework. In 1974, the plantation workers striking in Chalvet, Martinique — whose demands already included cutting the use of the pesticide Chlordecone — as well as the deadly repression that ensued are a testament to this legacy. Here like everywhere else,

the congenitally imperialist nation-state has steadfastly demonstrated its inability to treat with fairness and dignity populations that it once struck with a deficit of humanity.

Each new crime is either hidden or denied. And, if the crime is too obvious, it is the subject of a dishonest, convoluted discursive deployment that aims at shifting away from the question of who’s to be held accountable. The ecocide that is the chlordecone poisoning of the people and the soil is a baneful contemporary example of this logic. On September 27, 2018, Emmanuel Macron stated: “We have collectively chosen to keep on using Chlordecone whereas other territories had stopped using it long before us. Besides, we kept using it because the State, local elected officials, economic players accepted this situation.” Once again in State discourse, the criminal “we,” that is to say the State jointly with the “béké” caste (descendants of compensated slave-owners) miraculously turns into a collective “we” that makes populations who had no control whatsoever, responsible for their own sufferings. Within the colonial paradigm, justice is always impossible, anachronic, the victim always becoming complicit. In these so-called “overseas territories,” the perpetuation of the colonial status is carried out brazenly. The economic and racial structuring of power can be easily observed at all levels in society. The devaluation of Black (and other non-white) lives manifests itself in criminal health policies and derelict public infrastructures (schools, hospitals). The sensitive issue of access to water due to recurring water supply cuts and contamination illustrates how poor the quality of public services are.

Fenced in by intensive monoculture on one side and monopolies in the large retail sector on the other, the population has to pay astronomical prices for basic necessities, which was one of the causes of the massive 2009 strike movement. The simplified joint-stock company GHB perfectly epitomizes what the continuity of predation is. GHB represents the Hayot family, who had been slave-owning colonizers in Martinique since the 17th century and made a fortune in the sugar industry and banana plantations — and the commercialization of Chlordecone. As crop production collapsed, the company still maintained its rhum production, but chose to specialize in large, mass-market retail — both group purchasing organizations and large retail outlets under various names including the franchise Carrefour — and car sales. The company has now set up in the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, in Kanaky, in Africa, and in China. In the Caribbean and recently in Réunion, civil society organizations have kept calling out monopoly positions, predatory pricing and the exploitation that workers are subjected to.

We also think that one of the most egregious legacy of slavery and the control over bodies is to be found in the fact that the most repressive criminal policies are implemented in these territories and that the overcrowded prisons there are in an extreme state of dilapidation. The number of courses in high school and higher education is extremely limited and the unemployment rates are two to four times higher than in France. Little opportunities are afforded to the youth, whether it be training and studying choices or available jobs. For these “overseas departments” the French State only contemplates futures made of constant predation and minimum public services. The Chlordecone poisoning rate which reaches 92% of the Martinican population and 95% of the Guadeloupean population is evidence of what looks suspiciously like a genocidal rationale. There, just like in Flint, Michigan, or in the Pacific, where France undertook nuclear weapon testing (from 1966 to 1996), the symbolic tricks did not work wonders. Our lives still do not matter to nation-states that are intrinsically colonial and that we must destroy, here and there, just like their institutions.

Dismantling the World Order ///

We can act to create our own autonomous power, our own liberation, against and outside of the confines of the state and capital.” (Salish Sea Black Autonomists, 2019)

What makes the radical and unconditional demand for reparations revolutionary is to be found in what it cannot accept to see endure. “To repair” means to dismantle the system and the world order. In the book Reparations: An Urgent Demand for Humankind (2020), Garcin Malsa, the president of the MIR, which had filed a lawsuit against the French State in 2005, argues that in the fight for “reparation,” “the first step is the procedures that demand reparation to the French State, but the goal of which is to point a finger at at Western global domination and to express one’s rejection of the power relations into which the majority of humankind was coerced for the sole profit of a few.”

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Prospective and dissentive map for the Republic of New Afrika. / Pennsylvania State University.

During the 1968 Black Government Conference held in Detroit, activists gave their own answer to the reparation question by adopting a staunch anti-imperialist, internationalist, and socialist line. They called for the creation of an autonomous Black nation, the Republic of New Afrika. According to them, the U.S. nation was doomed, with no hope of redemption and there was no way they would assimilate into this preying empire. At the heart of the RNA’s “declaration of independence” stood the question of land and land redistribution. As they understood Black people to be a colonized population, the Republic of New Afrika advocated for their right to secession and self-determination and staked a claim to five states in the Black Belt as its national soil (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina). Moreover, the RNA gave its support to the fight of First Nations for land sovereignty, to the reunification of Mexico, to the Puerto Rican liberation struggle and more broadly, to all the liberation struggles waged on U.S.-colonized land.

For one of the crucial stakes in demanding reparations is the formulation of the coloniality of power and the criminalization of guilty nation-states so that they may be dissolved, destroyed. The projects of the MIR or the RNA assert and embrace conflictuality. They do not lament the incompleteness of some fantasmatic citizenship projects. In the same vein, the Frantz Fanon Foundation, the Guadeloupean organizations COSE (West Sainte-Rose and vicinity collective), UGTG (General Union of Guadeloupean Workers) and LKP (Liyannaj Kont Pwofitasyon/Alliance against hyper-exploitation) filed a lawsuit against the French State in May 2016. Besides land ownership and the QPC concerning the compensation law for slave owners (a QPC is an application for a preliminary ruling on the conformity of a legislative provision with the Constitution), their demands also included the appointment of experts “to shed light on the damage suffered by the Kalinas, the first Guadeloupean peoples who were massacred by De l’Olive and Duplessis at the behest of Richelieu and whose land was stolen.”

Harking as far back in the past was a direct attack on the essence of Guadeloupean territory. For our healing cannot align with the denial of the massacre of Indigenous peoples, the invasion of their land in Guadeloupe, but also in Canada or the United States. To never abandon our quest for historical justice for those who were victims before us, is to demand the final demise of the empire ; such demands are conflictual and transnational. They proclaim that imposing States, national languages, frontiers, colonial onomastics is of an intrinsically crushing and destructive nature. And this faith in oneself, in ourselves, in new beginnings, is the faith in the Taïno name “Ayiti” against the colonial one, “Saint-Domingue.”

Reparations are not about imagining us in a better position in a capitalist rat race but, rather, it is about cursing it. It is not about imagining a better, “repaired” West but, rather, about taking it down; for good. ■