France, Slavery and Colonization

A French intellectual talks frankly about topics that are often left unsaid in his country.

Louis Georges Tin

Louis-Georges Tin is a French intellectual and the vice president of CRAN (Conseil représentatif des associations noires de France or the Coalition of Black French Associations). As Black History Month comes to an end in the United States, he reviews the role of France in slavery and colonization, and talks about the social scars left by these two historical periods.

The Root: The Black Code was written to rule the slave trade. Does it mean before the Black Code the slave trade was anarchic?

Louis-Georges Tin: Anarchic? No. The slave trade was a very coherent system. But the masters had infinite power upon their slaves. The Black Code meant to limit the masters’ authority. As a consequence, the penalty could not go beyond cutting off the tongue when the slaves lied, cutting off the leg when he or she tried to run away, etc. As you can see, this “leniency” was rather harsh. And anyway, there was nobody to condemn the master if he went beyond what was written in the Code.

TR: Some French people (members of the Société des amis des Noirs) fought against slavery. What actions did they have? Did they undergo retaliation from the French state?

LGT: There were people like Lafayette, Condorcet, l’Abbé Grégoire, Olympe de Gouges who founded the Société des Amis des Noirs in 1788. This organization wanted to abolish the slave trade, but not slavery itself, even if some of their members could be more progressive. In the context of the French revolution, their ideas were widely discussed, but the colonial lobby managed to secure the system until 1794.

TR: In 1794, a decree abolished slavery, but in 1802 Napoleon, often considered a hero, canceled it. Why?

LGT: The decree was voted after the revolution in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). The situation there became very complex and tense, and the governor of the island had to free every slave. Then, the French members of Parliament extended this decision to every French colony. Napoleon, who was linked to the colonial lobby (his wife, Joséphine, had many slaves in Martinique), decided to restore slavery, mostly for economic reasons. Also because of his politics of grandeur, and because he did not see why a black person would not serve as a slave. Napoleon’s image is very positive in France, and he is often seen as a hero. Most people just don’t know that part of his action, and if reminded, tend to ignore this. But this is a crime against humanity. And in the Invalides, where the monumental coffin of the Emperor lies, not a single word is said about his atrocious responsibility.

LGT: Some thinkers were sincerely against the slave trade, and many others thought that it was not a profitable system. Hence, the idea to end slavery but to continue colonization in other ways. During the Berlin conference (1885), Africa was literally divided among the European nations. The United Kingdom and France took the lead during the conference. Of course, no African politician was invited. This was, perhaps, the climax of the European power all over the world—the decline started with the First World War, as the United States became the most powerful nation in the world. But during the Berlin conference, Europe could afford to impose its vision and division of the world.

TR: In France, there was a huge debate about the “positive role” of colonization. Why was the issue so sensitive?