On Wednesday, many people were taken aback by an announcement from the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs of a new ‘framework initiative’ that would return the 90 million gold francs paid by Haiti from 1825 to 1947.
This indemnity has long been a bone of contention, pressured as Haiti was to pay ‘compensation’ for the loss of colonial property in return for international recognition of the newly independent state.
When the Haitian president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, brought up the question once more, on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the death of national hero Toussaint L’Ouverture in a French cell in 1803, his counterpart Jacques Chirac was not impressed.
Even though two years earlier the French parliament had recognized slavery as a crime against humanity, the official response to the bill for $21,685,135,571 and 48 cents (its modern equivalent, with interest) was brusque, even bad-tempered. The foreign ministry commissioned a report on Franco-Haitian relations, which dismissed the claim for reparations as anachronistic and mocked the way in which Aristide had presented it.
There was precious little support even in the left-wing press in France, leading the Haitian writer Louis-Philippe Dalembert to pen an article in Libération wondering why intellectuals in the land of Hugo and Zola had all turned into foreign ministers whose main aim was to defend French interests. Dalembert was no friend of Aristide, and doubted whether Aristide was the best person to raise the issue, but he insisted that the demand for the restitution of an ‘immoral and iniquitous debt’ should not be allowed to be forgotten.
And indeed it has not. So despite Aristide’s enforced departure in the coup of February 2004 and Gerard Latortue’s prompt reassurance that the ‘illegal’ and ‘ridiculous’ claim would not be pursued, when Nicolas Sarkozy visited Haiti in February this year, he faced angry protests demanding that France pay up and help return Aristide to office.
The announcement of 14 July did not, then, come out of the blue. But, only a day after the National Assembly voted overwhelmingly in support of a ban on wearing the ‘Islamic full veil’ in public, it was unexpected, to say the least. And, of course, it was too good to be true.
In a manner reminiscent of the tactics of Les Liens Invisibles or The Yes Men, the announcement was carried on a site imitating that of the French Foreign Ministry, backed up by a news release purporting to be from Agence-France-Presse.
‘Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will,’ goes Gramsci’s slogan. For those with too much of the latter, the news may have prompted a flurry of excitement, but disappointment would inevitably follow. Those with an excess of the former may have taken some cynical delight in pointing out that the website was ‘fake’ or a ‘hoax’, as if it were therefore of no further account.
But both responses miss something interesting. It is no more ‘fake’ than a play or a film. The point of the excercise is not to kid people that something has taken place but to make it seem strange that something hasn’t. We might think of it as a kind of historical re-enactment but of the future rather than the past.
It stages a possible – or alternative – future, by composing a plausible statement that combines the language of neo-liberalism with that of France’s long-standing democratic traditions, without making reference to the claims of Aristide and his supporters.
In doing so, it invites us to imagine a rationale that would allow France to do a U-turn without losing face. Anyone reading the statement would find it hard to dismiss it as giving in to ‘illegal’ and ‘ridiculous’ demands. And thus the demand – whose symbolic importance should not be underestimated – is kept alive.
Sweetest of all perhaps, it has forced the Ministry to deny that it is planning to do anything so noble and to declare that it is considering legal action against those who dare to imagine such a thing.
[See follow-up post to this: The Payback II]