"There are no slaves in France." This maxim is such a potent element of French national ideology that on a recent trip to Paris to do research on "French slaves" I was informed by the indignant owner of a boarding house that I must be mistaken because slavery had never existed in France. The maxim is a very old one, thriving at least two hundred years before the phrase "Liberté, egalité, fraternité" echoed in the streets of Paris.
In this work I set out to discover the origins, manifestations, and consequences of France's "Freedom Principle"--the notion that any slave who sets foot on French soil becomes free--during a period when France was, on one hand, becoming thoroughly entangled in the Atlantic slave system and, on the other, developing a radical new political discourse based on notions of freedom, equality, and citizenship. By the late 1780s, France's Caribbean colonies produced more than two-fifths of the Western world's sugar and coffee, and the French government was increasingly dependent on colonial commerce as a source of revenue. The tension between France's economic dependence on colonial slavery and its celebration of liberty is manifest in hundreds of court cases in which slaves who were brought to France as servants by their colonial masters sought to escape slavery in the final century of the Ancien Régime. On the basis of the Freedom Principle, nearly all of them obtained their freedom, particularly in the jurisdiction of the Parlement of Paris.