Macron Honors Touissant Louverture, but Leaves Much Unsaid

  • Posted on: 30 April 2023
  • By: Bryan Schaaf

The president of France on Thursday stepped into the cold mountain prison where Toussaint Louverture, a famed leader of the Haitian Revolution, died 220 years ago after being tricked, kidnapped and secreted across an ocean and into the French hinterland. Standing in the armory, not far from the cell where Louverture spent his last days, President Emmanuel Macron called the man who took on France after being freed from slavery a hero who embodied the true values of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. “Toussaint Louverture strove to give life to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,” Mr. Macron said in a speech delivered on the 175th anniversary of France’s abolition of slavery. “That which offered freedom, equality, fraternity to all.”

It was the first time a French leader paid official tribute to Louverture at the prison where he died, a powerful gesture from a president determined to reconcile the France of today with the shadows of its past. But the effort comes at a time when the issues of race and colonial history remain extremely fraught, and what Mr. Macron did not say may have spoken louder than what he did. He glossed over the racism and colonial oppression that led to Louverture’s imprisonment and said nothing about the lingering effects of the country’s slaving past. In particular, he did not mention the ransom that France extorted from Haiti to compensate former slave owners and that hobbled Haiti’s economic development for more than a century.“Toussaint Louverture, it’s true, embodied the brightest side of the French Revolution,” said Karfa Diallo, the founder of Memories and Sharing, a French organization that campaigns for greater recognition of France’s slavery and colonial past. But France, he said, cannot “pay tribute to Toussaint Louverture while ignoring Haiti’s demands for justice.”

Louverture grew up enslaved in what was then France’s most prized and brutal colony, Saint-Domingue, later Haiti. He went on to become one of the leaders of the slave rebellion that prompted the revolutionary government in France to declare an end to slavery across all the colonies in 1794, at the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.  But then Napoleon came to power, sent warships to crush the former colony — unsuccessfully — and reimposed slavery in the French empire. Louverture was seized, and imprisoned without trial.

It wasn’t for another 46 years that France, on April 27, 1848, abolished slavery for a second and final time.  By honoring Louverture, a figure of the first abolition, on the anniversary of the second one, Mr. Macron engaged in an act of historical incongruity that blurred the message, said Myriam Cottias, director of the International Research Center on Slavery and Post-Slavery in Paris.

The first abolition was brought about by a bloody slave uprising, while the second reflected the ideals of the French Republic, notably equality. Plus, Ms. Cottias noted, Louverture was betrayed by Napoleon, an autocrat who crowned himself emperor. “To celebrate the Republic in the place where we killed a small flame, a man of the Enlightenment, and where the person who made that man die was also the one who killed the Republic — that ambiguity, I find extremely harmful,” she said. Mr. Macron did touch on the treachery, saying that Louverture and his fellow rebels embodied the French revolutionary ideals, unlike the troops sent to capture them. “Toussaint Louverture’s soldiers sang the Marseillaise in front of the French troops who had come to restore servitude,” he said. “The song of the Revolution to remind the invaders that they betrayed the spirit of republican France in an unforgivable way.”

In 1998, Louverture’s name was added to a wall in the Pantheon, France’s tomb of heroes. But much of his history remains forgotten in France, said Jean-Marc Ayrault, a former French prime minister and the head of France’s Foundation for the Remembrance of Slavery. A report published by the foundation in 2020 said that only one in 10 French primary and secondary school students learn about Louverture and the Haitian Revolution.  Pap Ndiaye, the French education minister, acknowledged that ignorance earlier this month during a tribute to Louverture in the Pantheon. “While Haitian students all know about the French Revolution, few French students know about the Haitian Revolution,” he said. “This has to change.”

Ms. Cottias said that France’s fervent belief in the republican ideal of equality is part of the reason the topic remains so sensitive. “It’s hard for people to understand that the history of slavery and colonial history is part of France’s history, and not a history on the side,” she said. “It’s the sticking point.”  France’s legacy in Haiti did not end with its declaration of independence in 1804.  In 1825, French warships returned and forced the young country to pay compensation for the colonial losses, or face war. Haiti became the world’s first and only country in which the descendants of enslaved people paid reparations to the descendants of their masters, for generations. That debt, and the loans the country took out to pay for it, crippled the country’s economy for more than a century.

A New York Times investigation revealed that over six decades, Haiti sent $560 million in today’s dollars to descendants of former colonists and the banks that offered the first loan. Had that money stayed in the country, it would have grown the economy from $21 billion to $115 billion over two centuries. And that does not include later loans taken out.  Several prominent scholars, activists and politicians in both France and Haiti have long called on France to return the money. Mr. Ayrault, the former prime minister, said his foundation would lobby for a commission to shed light on the history of these payments.  But Mr. Macron did not mention the debt in his speech, emphasizing instead the symbolic power of the tribute. “The simple fact of pronouncing this name, Toussaint Louverture, is therefore a reparation for the affront made to a great Frenchman,” he said.  Mr. Macron barely referred to contemporary Haiti, which is plagued by gang violence.

Jean Josué Pierre Dahomey, Haiti’s ambassador to France, said the tribute to Louverture should also be “a testament to France’s obligation of solidarity toward Haiti.”  And Leslie Voltaire, a former Haitian official, welcomed the tribute but said France owed Haiti more than words. “The legacy of Haiti is a legacy of trying to reimpose slavery, and forcing a neocolonial regime by debt,” Mr. Voltaire, who campaigned for financial compensation from France as a government minister 20 years ago, said from Port-au-Prince. Mr. Voltaire pointed out that a former French president, François Hollande, promised to repay that debt in 2015. “I would have liked to hear a follow-up to that,” he said.

Constant Méheut has covered France from the Paris bureau of The Times since 2020. Catherine Porter is an international correspondent based in Paris. She was previously The Times’s Canada bureau chief. She is the author of “A Girl Named Lovely.” @porterthereport A version of this article appears in print on April 28, 2023, Section A, Page 6 of the New York Times. 

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