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French Historical Memory


Americans really struggle to deal with the problematic parts of our past. But comapred to the French, with their own weird national myths, Americans do an OK job. I mean, that Macron is the first French leader to directly address Toussaint L’Ouverture is odd enough to hear, but his complete inability to articulate that France was a racist colonial power is just something.

“Toussaint Louverture strove to give life to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,” Mr. Macron said in a speech delivered on the 175th anniversary of France’s abolition of slavery. “That which offered freedom, equality, fraternity to all.”

It was the first time a French leader paid official tribute to Louverture at the prison where he died, a powerful gesture from a president determined to reconcile the France of today with the shadows of its past.

But the effort comes at a time when the issues of race and colonial history remain extremely fraught, and what Mr. Macron did not say may have spoken louder than what he did.

He glossed over the racism and colonial oppression that led to Louverture’s imprisonment and said nothing about the lingering effects of the country’s slaving past. In particular, he did not mention the ransom that France extorted from Haiti to compensate former slave owners and that hobbled Haiti’s economic development for more than a century.

“Toussaint Louverture, it’s true, embodied the brightest side of the French Revolution,” said Karfa Diallo, the founder of Memories and Sharing, a French organization that campaigns for greater recognition of France’s slavery and colonial past.

But France, he said, cannot “pay tribute to Toussaint Louverture while ignoring Haiti’s demands for justice.”

Louverture grew up enslaved in what was then France’s most prized and brutal colony, Saint-Domingue, later Haiti. He went on to become one of the leaders of the slave rebellion that prompted the revolutionary government in France to declare an end to slavery across all the colonies in 1794, at the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

And it’s not as if the French oppression of Haiti ended then:

Ms. Cottias said that France’s fervent belief in the republican ideal of equality is part of the reason the topic remains so sensitive.

“It’s hard for people to understand that the history of slavery and colonial history is part of France’s history, and not a history on the side,” she said. “It’s the sticking point.”

France’s legacy in Haiti did not end with its declaration of independence in 1804.

In 1825, French warships returned and forced the young country to pay compensation for the colonial losses, or face war. Haiti became the world’s first and only country in which the descendants of enslaved people paid reparations to the descendants of their masters, for generations. That debt, and the loans the country took out to pay for it, crippled the country’s economy for more than a century.

A New York Times investigation revealed that over six decades, Haiti sent $560 million in today’s dollars to descendants of former colonists and the banks that offered the first loan. Had that money stayed in the country, it would have grown the economy from $21 billion to $115 billion over two centuries. And that does not include later loans taken out.

Several prominent scholars, activists and politicians in both France and Haiti have long called on France to return the money. Mr. Ayrault, the former prime minister, said his foundation would lobby for a commission to shed light on the history of these payments.

But Mr. Macron did not mention the debt in his speech, emphasizing instead the symbolic power of the tribute. “The simple fact of pronouncing this name, Toussaint Louverture, is therefore a reparation for the affront made to a great Frenchman,” he said.

Mr. Macron barely referred to contemporary Haiti, which is plagued by gang violence.

L’Ouverture is a great Frenchman…..That’s as far as the French can go, he was one of us. But the rest of Haiti? Our own history of oppressing these people? Nah……

I find the French so odd about this stuff. I don’t think any of the colonial powers has had a tougher mental time giving up the colonies as then French. They so want to go back into west Africa and will send troops into those nations as quickly as possible in any circumstance. I think it is the deep belief that France is the greatest nation in the world and a colonial myth that claimed that all the colonial people were actually French citizens too, which is a different categorization than the British or Americans or Germans or Belgians. So to admit that the Algerians or the Haitians might not only directly reject this identity but that the French owe them something for it? Just beyond the pale of what is considered acceptable discourse.

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