France’s colonial past in Haiti is coming back to haunt it.
A group of black-rights associations is suing a French state-owned bank over compensation payments it collected for slave owners in the Caribbean nation, citing as precedent reparations ordered by U.S. Civil War General William Sherman.
Haiti, France’s most valuable 18th-century colony because of sugar and coffee production, became independent in 1804 after a slave revolt. Under the threat of attack from French warships in 1825, the country agreed to pay reparations of 150 million francs as compensation to former slave owners. Though the amount was cut in 1838, it took Haiti until 1947 to pay off its debt.
The lawsuit filed this month against Caisse des Depots et Consignations, or CDC, and the French state is demanding an acknowledgement of their role in Haiti’s impoverishment, modeling the petition on compensation devised by Sherman -- a commander in the Union army in the U.S. Civil War -- who in January 1865 ordered that former slaves be given 40 acres and a mule for each family.
That’s the “historical reference for the demand for moral and financial acknowledgement” of the impact of debt paid by Haiti as compensation to French slave owners, Norbert Tricaud, one of the lawyers who filed the suit, said in a May 21 interview at his office in Paris.
More slaves were imported from Africa into Haiti than into the U.S., where slavery lasted 70 years longer, according to Philippe Girard, who teaches history at McNeese State University in Louisiana and is the author of the book, “Haiti.” Europe has lagged behind in seeking accountability from companies that may have benefited from the slave trade, Tricaud said.
The French suit cites an agreement in 2005 by JPMorgan Chase & Co. to contribute $5 million to finance education for young blacks in Louisiana in recognition of the role in slavery of units that later became part of the bank.
CDC was created in 1816, a year after Louis XVIII restored the monarchy in France, to help alleviate the country’s heavy debts and its problems raising money. CDC guaranteed and invested deposits collected in escrow accounts and civil servants’ retirement funds. The financial institution, which now acts as the vehicle for state holdings, has stakes in French companies including France Telecom SA, Vivendi SA, Icade SA, CNP Assurances SA and Veolia Transdev.
CDC spokesman Bruno George said that bank had received the suit and that legal reasons prevented him from commenting on it. Alexandre de Jorna, the French state lawyer in the case, said the state has not yet decided its position on the suit.
French slave owners’ 150 million francs in compensation from Haiti compares with 60 million francs for the U.S. purchase of Louisiana from France in 1803.
The payments made by Haiti to CDC meant that victims of slavery were forced to compensate those who benefited from it, according to the suit. They set Haiti on the road to modern indebtedness and poverty, it says.
Using inflation and compound interest, Haiti’s former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide claimed that the amount paid to France was worth $21 billion. In his history of Haiti, Girard writes that the figure was designed to distract attention from the failings of Aristide’s rule.
The suit was filed at the Paris Tribunal de Grande Instance by the Conseil Representatif des Associations Noires, an umbrella grouping of French black-rights groups set up in 2005.
The group’s focus is less on compensation for slave descendants and more on getting France to recognize its actions.
The group is demanding that CDC pay 10 million euros ($13 million) to fund slavery-related research and education.
CDC should pay for French school textbooks to be updated to explain the consequences of French imperialism and a slavery museum should be built in France, Tricaud said.
A ruling on the suit, filed on May 13, will take at least a year and CDC and the French state could delay the case for much longer, he said.
“It depends on the good faith of the state,” he said. “I know what it takes to delay a case.”
The case was filed after intensified lobbying efforts since the victory of Socialist Francois Hollande in the 2012 presidential election, Tricaud said.
France in 2010 canceled 56 million euros of remaining debt from Haiti and said that it would spend 230 million euros to help the country rebuild after the earthquake in January 2010 that killed about 300,000 people.
Hollande said this month that it would be impossible to make reparations for slavery.
The reparations order from Sherman, whose “March to the Sea” in late 1864 left a trail of destruction across Georgia, also didn’t become a reality. Land was set aside in Georgia and South Carolina and then taken back when U.S. President Andrew Johnson rescinded the command in the same year.
In 2012, Haiti was ranked 161st out of 187 countries in terms of human development by the United Nations Development Program. About 80 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day, according to the World Bank.