FORT-DE-FRANCE, Martinique (AP) — An appeals court in the French Caribbean island of Martinique on Tuesday dismissed a request from groups seeking slavery reparations in a blow to efforts that began more than 15 years ago.
The court provided several reasons for its ruling, noting there’s a statute of limitations for those crimes and that a French law already allows the implementation of certain measures meant to “bring a memorial contribution to the recognition of slavery and the slave trade” and that it is not for the judiciary to decide if those measures are sufficient.
Patrick Baudouin, one of two lawyers representing the French state, said the judgment “is not a negationist decision that calls into question the abomination of slavery,” but that the plaintiffs are picking the wrong target: “It is not the responsibility of a judge to grant reparations, centuries later.”
Slavery was abolished in France in 1848, and government lawyers have argued that the so-called Taubira law, dating from 2001 and named after a 2022 French presidential candidate, has made it possible to recognize the slave trade and slavery as crimes against humanity but that the issue of financial reparations had been dismissed.
Undeterred by Tuesday’s ruling, the International Movement for Reparations and others who joined the lawsuit against the French government vowed to seek a Supreme Court ruling on a civil legal procedure they launched in 2005.
French courts have repeatedly rejected their request, but it was the European Court of Human Rights that kept it alive by making their claims admissible.
“History will prove us right, and time is on our side,” said Garcin Malsa, the movement’s president, adding that “this issue will lay bare the horrors of French and European colonialism. We are going to encourage as many Afro-descendants as possible to file a complaint.”
The issue of reparations is widely debated across the Caribbean, where an estimated 5 million slaves were brought over by colonial powers including England and France and forced to toil on sugar plantations and other fields under brutal conditions.
Aimé Césaire, a poet and politician from Martinique and a founder of the Négritude movement, said in a 2001 interview with the French newspaper L’Express that he did not favor repentance or reparations.
“There is even, in my opinion, a danger to this idea of reparations,” he was quoted as saying. “I would not like it if one fine day Europe says to itself, ‘Well, here is the note or the check, and we are not talking about it anymore!’ There is no possible repair for something that is irreparable and that is not quantifiable.”
Associated Press reporter Nicolas Vaux-Montagny in Paris contributed.