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French bank faces lawsuit over slave trade

media François Hollande and Speaker of the French Senate Jean-Pierre Bel attend a ceremony at the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris to mark the abolition of slavery. Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes

A French human rights group said it will sue a state-owned bank for its role in the slave trade in the 19th century as France marked slavery remembrance day.

France's Representative Council of Black Associations (CRAN) announced it will launch a lawsuit against the bank CDC (Caisse des depots) on Monday over its role in the slave trade in general and events surrounding Haitian independence in particular.

"The CDC was an accomplice to a crime against humanity," CRAN President Louis-Georges Tin told reporters. "It played a considerable role in the slave trade."

France is the only country in the world to recognise the trans-Atlantic slave trade as a crime against humanity. The move was made exactly 12 years ago today.

To mark slavery remembrance day, French president François Hollande ruled out paying fore reparations.

“What has been, has been,” he said. "History cannot be rubbed out. It cannot be subjected to an accounting process that... would be impossible to complete."

Haiti won its independence from France in 1804 after a slave revolt that had been inspired by the French revolution of 1789.

But the French navy subsequently blockaded the Caribbean country and extracted massive compensation for the colonial power's property losses.

According to Tin, the amounts paid to France via the CDC between 1825 and 1946 were the equivalent of 16 billion euros in today's money and contributed to a legacy of underdevelopment that has left Haiti as one of the poorest countries on the planet.

"This ransom condemned Haiti to an infernal spiral of instability and misery," he added.

Legal experts believe that CRAN's action has little prospect of making headway through the French courts, with even the organisation's own lawyer, Norbert Tricaud, implicitly admitting as much.

"If we are presenting this suit, it is to promote debate," Tricaud said.

In the United States, a class action aimed at forcing the bank JP Morgan and 17 other companies to pay reparations for their involvement in slavery was dismissed in 2004.

JP Morgan subsequently issued a public apology over the action of two of its predecessor banks, which had accepted slaves as collateral on loans.

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