The issue of reparations for slavery is more and more prevalent in our society, where racial discrimination is singled out.
spoke with Magali Bessone, researcher of the REPAIRS project, about which we are reporting this week in three parts.
"We are still caught up in this story that made us", explains the philosopher, also a professor at Paris 1 and researcher at the International Center for Research on Slavery and Post-Slavery.
For several years now, French collectives and associations, sometimes accompanied by elected representatives, have been asking the French State or institutions close to it, that sums be paid with a view to “reparation” of the situation. 'slavery. In 2016, within the framework of the Equality And Citizenship law, the deputy Cécile Duflot argued the need to “right the wrongs of this lasting damage”. Besides, there are also other types of demands for reparations: anti-discrimination policies, requests for apologies, memorial efforts. In May 2020, activists from Martinique destroyed two statues of Victor Schœlcher, asking that the Roman slave be celebrated instead.
How to respond to these repair requests?
Are they legitimate, when they are addressed several centuries later, to States and populations?
How to repair, and who should repair?
We asked Magali Bessone, author of
Faire justice de l'irréparable (Vrin),
philosopher at Panthéon-Sorbonne University (ISJPS) and associate researcher at the International Center for Research on Slavery and Post-Slavery (Ciresc) .
She is a member of the Repairs project (see box), where she coordinates a reparations lexicon which will be released in August.
Are slavery-related crimes only crimes of the past?
We can first respond by recalling that according to the Taubira law of May 2001, trafficking and slavery are crimes against humanity. Therefore, imprescriptible. This moral and legal qualification itself gives them a temporal thickness which makes it difficult to refer them to something which no longer concerns us. Moreover, when slavery was definitively abolished, in 1848, the legal opposition between people and things on which it was based shifted and translated into a very rigid socio-political and racial opposition, between whites and blacks, which structures still our society and in which a certain number of discriminations are anchored. Finally, insofar as the abolition is not accompanied by reparations for the former slaves but compensation for the former owners,economic inequalities have also been maintained over time.
In short, by asking for repairs, it is not so much a question of repairing the past as of repairing the present ...
Absolutely. As [writer] James Baldwin puts it, “We are our history”. We are woven from this enduring history of unequal structures which have not been modified and which have produced the organization of unjust relations that we have today. We cannot repair the actions of the past, the exploitation, the crimes, the violence: we must live with this irreparable. On the other hand, we can repair the current relationships between members of society, and between our institutions and ourselves. We have obviously changed moral values: slavery is now unanimously condemned. From this moral consensus, we must find ways to restore political, economic and social relationships that recognize the strength and scope of this history in our present.
You say that reparations are “an issue of justice, not a legal issue”. What do you think is wrong with going to court and asking for reparations?
Judicial logic is part of what has been called since Aristotle the field of corrective justice, as opposed to distributive justice. Corrective justice is that which is concerned with responding to a violation of law; distributive justice aims to distribute resources equitably. These are two different justice issues. The judiciary, in its criminal and civil form, translates the requirements of corrective justice into the field of law. However, two difficulties arise: first, to punish a culprit or correct a wrong, it is necessary to be able to identify the individuals concerned and in the case of historical injustices, the protagonists are dead. Then, we must establish a causal relationship between injustices of the past and prejudices of the present,and it is very difficult given the systematic and structural nature of slavery and the time spent. Finally, one can reproach the judicial logic of seeking to establish the "blood price", that is to compensate by material and financial compensation for immeasurable injustices - crimes linked to filiation, cultural alienation, psychological suffering ... does not mean that there is no possible justice, but that possible justice is political justice.but that possible justice is political justice.but that possible justice is political justice.
You call it transitional justice. What is it about ?
It is first of all a set of mechanisms put in place to respond to the transition from conflicting societies, resulting from civil war, having experienced mass crimes or authoritarian regimes, towards democratic and peaceful societies. At the end of the 1990s, we saw the emergence of a certain number of legal or extra-legal procedures (truth and reconciliation commissions, etc.) which attempted to produce peace and justice. However, thinking in terms of the transition towards more just and inclusive standards and practices is also interesting for societies which are apparently more stable but which are also going through deep conflicts, such as ours. Transitional justice is therefore a "reconstructive" justice, to use the term of Antoine Garapon,which proposes to take up the standards and values of our society to make them more inclusive. The challenge is to enable a national conversation about what we want to do together, which engages all members of society. Reparations are thus much more a matter of transitional justice than of distributive or corrective justice.
In your opinion, it is the responsibility of the French state to make reparation, not individuals or communities. Why ?
First, because the French state was a decisive player in the establishment of the slave system in the colonial empire. He is obviously not the only one, however. The slave trade involved different empires, commercial companies, international organizations. The slave economy involved companies and private banks. But the responsibility of the State to repair is often difficult to recognize: in the United States for example, banks, insurance companies, railroads, universities, have been sued or have taken the initiative to embark on the path of reparations. But no state responsibility, at the national level, has been put in place. It is also at the heart of the demands of the “Black Lives Matter” movements. In the United States as in France,it is a national political conversation that we have to conduct. However, the State is nothing other than all the citizens: our responsibility to repair is therefore collective.
Does the responsibility of the State and the citizens necessarily imply that they are at fault?
We must distinguish the responsibility to repair from the guilt.
I may have obligations to victims of injury even when I was not the cause of the injury (for example, during water damage).
It is the whole logic of insurance, and more deeply of solidarity, which makes it possible to think that we are responsible when and because we have the capacity to repair a wrong, even when we are not at the origin of the wrong.
We are not only responsible for the past, but above all for the future.
What can the state do to repair?
This is an important question, because a good part of the reluctance against reparations stems from the fact that they are only heard on the model of financial compensation. However, repairs can be very different. Let us think, for example, of the dimension of production and dissemination of knowledge: research, teaching, by promoting grants and arrow projects, by deepening the reflection on slavery and post-slavery in programs and manuals. Let us think of the cultural dimension, of the support for the production and directing of documentaries, fiction films, series, exhibitions, museums, which would address slavery in all its dimensions. These are measures particularly worked by the Foundation for the memory of slavery.Reparations can also take the form of a public apology, which would signify official recognition of the crime. Finally, it can be to fight against racism, racial stigma and discrimination with a generous and ambitious program of inclusion and real equality. This is why the classic opposition between symbolic and material reparations does not make much sense.
Click on our interactive slavery reparations map
Were your ancestors slave owners?
The REPAIRS project
REPAIRS is a research project that studies compensation, reparations and compensation for slavery between the 19th and 21st centuries.
“There are few informed, data-backed answers to the question 'is it legitimate to talk about reparations?'
We said to ourselves that we were going to take it seriously, ”explains Myriam Cottias, director of the International Center for Research on Slavery and Post-Slavery (Ciresc) and coordinator of REPAIRS.
At the center of the program, a database and a search engine which will allow the public to have precise information on the indemnities received by the owners of French slaves.
The database of the REPAIRS project will allow each French person to do their own research on their ancestors.