Artillery Row

French soul searching

The search engine that tells you if you are descended from slave owners

Each year on 21 May, the French tread their way back to the shadows of their colonial past by marking La Loi Taubira. Instituted twenty years ago by its eponymous founder, politician Christiane Taubira, the law defines European-perpetrated slavery as “a crime against humanity”. Having enshrined guilt in law, the French may annually don their horsehair shirts and prostrate themselves before the public in a move that is both repentant and congratulatory all at once. Here, after all, is a Republic that is neither afraid to look its past in the face nor to stage a series of choreographed mea culpas for the world to see. And yet despite their best efforts, dissonance persists. The past, it seems, cannot be so easily satisfied. 

Technocrats to the end, the French have sought to remedy such dissonance with fact. The facts may be vicious, but they will be unimpeachable and that will make all the difference. This year, on the twentieth anniversary of La Loi Taubira, the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) has invested in cold hard facts, namely a search engine that will tell you whether or not you are descended from slave owners and — what’s more — how much you owe to the descendants of your victims for the crimes of your ancestors. Entitled “Repairs” (its anglicism a nod to either universality or opacity) the website demands dates and places before calculating the current reparations in what is termed a “compensation and redress map”. Click through the links and the experience is a cross between looking at a bill you can’t pay and someone else’s exam results; which is to say uncomfortable and gloomily voyeuristic.

France has long suffered whiplash when it comes to recording a warts and all history of the Republic

The ease with which the information is presented belies its less palatable nature. After the abolition of slavery in 1848 under the Second Republic, France issued compensation to slave owners whom they considered expropriated from their lawful possessions. Doling out francs for slaves thus enabled France to prop her colonial missionaries, without whom the edifice would have crumbled. Money in, money out. But as modern France is discovering, the moral balance sheets of history do not make for such easy debits or credits. Or do they? Thomas Pikkety, economic historian of the French Left, believes a straight transfer will do. Riding the publicity wave of his 2020 tome Capital and Ideology, Piketty argues for a thirty billion Euro reparation payment to be made to Haiti. To do anything else would be nothing short of “intellectual dishonesty”, he proclaims widely. 

France has long suffered a case of whiplash when it comes to recording something which might resemble a warts and all history of the Republic. From the intentions of “total history” in the twentieth-century Annales school, embodied by historians such as Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch, to the cultural turn in the 1980s that privileged a history of sensation or emotion, the field of inquiry has been subject to no small amount of disorientation. Legal precedents such as Taubira’s Law move the needle of historical investigation further, towards the realm of national identity, and its sidekick, memory. The memory turn is not, however, a novel idea to the French. Sparked in the 80s with historian Pierre Nora’s seven-volume Lieux de mémoire, the French sought, under the watchful eye of their secular intellectual god Nora, to undertake nothing short of a vast re-ordering of their relationship with the past. Anchoring history to memory, the French historical landscape became, from the 90s onwards, peppered with lois mémorielles. These laws, of which Taubira is one (amongst others including the criminalization of Holocaust denial) have been characterized as clumsy interventions not least because their insistence on remembrance has been interpreted at the expense of History. 

All of which leaves a complicated taste in the French mouth. Critics of the CNRS and its slave-trade search tool, cite a worrying turn in the French psyche towards victimization that, far from simply raising awareness of colonial ills, continues to exacerbate them among the nation’s youth. French academics, for their part, lament the postcolonial turn in the French Academy to the exclusion of all else, a trend seen in the voluntary email sign-off of certain CNRS academics as “esclavise(e)” (a bald translation of which would be Best Wishes, I the Enslaved). Macron, himself under the influence of diversity Svengali and official adviser, Pascal Blanchard, would be unlikely to make any objection. With Le Pen on his heels ahead of next year’s Presidential run-off, he may yet have to address the overwhelmingly Leftward direction of the French Academy. 

When Christiane Taubira, then deputé of Guyana, stood before the Assemblee Nationale in 1999 she called, not for an act of repentance or contrition on the part of the French Republic, but for a reckoning with the facts. Twenty years on, she might be surprised to see how these facts are being used. In honouring the Loi Taubira with a tool that seeks to make financial reparations over the commemorative and symbolic ones, France chains herself to her past rather than her future. Caught in a post-socialist condition, the French now find themselves — in the absence of plausible consensus on what a better society might look like — fixated upon the past and seeking, in Walter Benjamin’s words to “make whole what has been smashed”. Whether that hole/whole can be repaired with fifty-euro notes is up for debate. 

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