France refuses to pay slavery reparations

French President François Hollande announced on Friday that France would not be paying reparations for the role of the state-owned CDC bank in the slave trade, despite allegations that a €21 billion debt has crippled Haiti for centuries.

France refuses to pay slavery reparations
A colonial fresco in Paris depicts French-run slavery. On May 10th France said it would not pay the equivalent of €20 billion in reparations involving the CDC bank (right.) Photos: Verdy/Piermont/AFP

Hollande on Friday ruled out the payment of reparations for slavery as a rights group announced a suit against state-owned bank CDC over its role in the trade.

"What has been, has been," Hollande said in a speech to mark France's slavery remembrance day. "History cannot be rubbed out. It cannot be subjected to an accounting process that… would be impossible to complete."

France's Representative Council of Black Associations (CRAN) announced it will on Monday be serving a writ on the bank CDC (Caisse des depots) over its role in the slave trade in general and events surrounding Haitian independence in particular.

"The CDC was an accomplice to a crime against humanity," CRAN President Louis-Georges Tin told reporters. "It played a considerable role in the slave trade."

Haiti won its independence from France in 1804 after the celebrated slave revolt that had been inspired by the French revolution of 1789.

But the French navy subsequently blockaded the Caribbean country and extracted massive compensation for the colonial power's property losses.

According to Tin, the amounts paid to France via the CDC between 1825 and 1946 were the equivalent of $21 billion in today's money and contributed to a legacy of underdevelopment that has left Haiti as one of the poorest countries on the planet.

"This ransom condemned Haiti to an infernal spiral of instability and misery," he added.

Legal experts believe that CRAN's action has little prospect of making headway through the French courts, 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.

In the United States, a class action aimed at forcing the bank JP Morgan and 17 other companies to pay reparations for their involvement in slavery was dismissed in 2004.

JP Morgan subsequently issued a public apology over the action of two of its predecessor banks, which had accepted slaves as collateral on loans.

The bank also agreed to set up a $5 million scholarship fund to help with young blacks from poor backgrounds with education costs.

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‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.