France, Slavery and Colonization

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?

A law was voted on Feb. 23, 2005, that declared the “positive role” of colonization, and claimed it had to be taught at school. This created a large and controversial debate. Several petitions were published. Intellectuals, organizations and politicians expressed their views. Many people were shocked, but most people failed to see the problem. A poll made during that time showed that 64 percent of French citizens agreed with the law.


In fact, there is no reason to be surprised: In spite of the process of decolonization, French institutions continue to believe in the good they think they have done colonizing the world. Many intellectuals refer to colonization with a sense of nostalgia and think it was a privilege to be colonized by the French.

Though it was particularly violent and brutal, the conquest of Algeria is still seen as brave and nice; most people don’t even know about the 90,000 men and women who were killed by the police and the army in Madagascar in 1947-1948. In 1885, Jules Ferry, who is widely praised for establishing “free, non-sectarian and compulsory schools” in Frane made a famous speech in which he explained that “there is a mission for superior races to civilize inferior races.”


I know this debate may seem a bit odd. It could not happen, I hope, in other countries. Confronted by the United States, India, Australia and many other powerful countries, the United Kingdom could hardly claim that colonization was “positive.” We could say the same thing about Spain, confronted by Mexico, Venezuela or Colombia.

TR: In France, immigrants and their children suffer from discrimination, racism, prejudice…


LGT: France is very ambivalent about this issue. Each year, the most popular persons (in France) turn out to be Zinedine Zidane and Yannick Noah, an Arab football player and a black tennis player. And [state secretary for sports] Rama Yade, who is black, is one of the most popular ministers in the government, as polls regularly show. From this, you might argue that the population is very open-minded and not racist at all. However, a study carried out by the International Labor Organization recently showed that 80 percent or French companies discriminate against racial minorities. And the Eurobarometer made an inquiry in 2008 showing that the four poorest regions of Europe are the four French overseas departments, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Guyana and Reunion. This is the French paradox.

TR: Many African countries celebrate their 50-year anniversary of independence. Still, some think that Africans sometimes react as if their minds were still “colonized.” What do you say?


LGT: I don’t know if minds are still colonized, but obviously “Françafrique” still exists, the power of France over its former colonies. Just to give you an example: The palace of the president of Ivory Coast is still a French property!

 Habibou Bangré is a writer living in France.