The Representative Council of Black Associations (CRAN), a leading anti-racism watchdog group in France, is filing a lawsuit against state-owned bank Caisse des dépôts et de consignations (CDC), alleging that the bank had illegally profited from the slave trade in Haiti between 1804 and 1946, collecting sums equal to $21 billion from the former colony.
According to CRAN President Louis-Georges Tin, France had forced its former colony to make annual payouts to the CDC in exchange for obtaining its independence in 1804, while threatening in 1825 to re-colonise Haiti if it did not make the payments.
Tin also noted that the CDC continued to “prosper through the slave trade”, despite slavery being abolished in 1848, calling for a wider campaign for further reparation to those affected by slavery, including African citizens.
The CDC was an accomplice to a crime against humanity. It played a considerable role in the slave trade,” said Tin, according to AFP.
“This (historical) ransom condemned Haiti to an infernal spiral of instability and misery," he added, speaking on May 10 – known as "slavery period memorial day" in France.
In a speech commemorating the day, President Francois Hollande acknowledged the state’s role in endorsing slavery in the past; though he rejected calls to pay out cash reparations as France was already ''repaying this debt by sending our soldiers'' to protect its former colonies – including fighting Al-Qaeda in Mali.
"What has happened, has happened… History cannot be rubbed out. It cannot be subjected to an accounting process that... would be impossible to complete,” the French President said.
'We know the deadly role France played in the exploitation of African territories and through this sinister trade'', Hollande added. But “the only possible choice, the greatest and the most dignified, is memory, vigilance and transmission,” he said.
Legal experts believe that CRAN's lawsuit will have little chance of success, with even the organisation's own lawyer, Norbert Tricaud, implicitly admitting as much.
"If we are presenting this suit, it is to promote debate," Tricaud said.
Nonetheless, CRAN was encouraged after France’s Justice Minister Christiane Taubira said that she supported land reforms in their overseas territories to help the descendents of slaves, just two days after President Hollande’s remarks.
“In the overseas territories there was a land grab, the general result was that the descendents of slaves were left without access to land. Therefore we should think about – without sparking a civil war – regrouping properties that were divided and about land reform,” Taubira said in an interview published in the Journal de Dimanche weekly on Sunday.
“There are steps that should be taken, without expropriations, and clearly explaining the reason behind the state’s push to purchase land,” added Taubira, who hails from the overseas region of French Guiana.
“I am overjoyed to hear of Mrs. Taubira’s announcement,” CRAN’s Tin told FRANCE 24 on Sunday. “It’s clear that Mr. Hollande is an uncomfortable position. He is coming off as a man who turns people away, who tells the victims of slavery ‘too bad’.”
“Our colleagues overseas have heard the announcement loud and clear… we all expect to be contacted quickly by Mrs. Taubira and the government to figure out how to put this policy in place,” Tin said, adding that the new announcement would still not dissuade his group from suing the CDC.