FORT-DE-FRANCE, Martinique — A court has found an 84-year-old businessman guilty of condoning a crime against humanity for praising slavery during a TV interview and sentenced him Wednesday to pay a fine of nearly $10,000.
Alain Despointes made the comments at a moment when the French Caribbean territory was convulsed by protests over high prices and low wages and by resentment that the primarily white, “beke” descendants of slaveholders control much of the local economy.
Despointes, one of the beke elite, also criticized mixed-race marriages during the interview aired in late January 2009 and said he wanted to “preserve his race.”
He is the first man in Martinique found guilty under a 2001 French law that declared slavery a crime against humanity.
Defence attorney Dinah Rioual-Rosier said she would appeal the ruling and described Despointes as “a great humanist” who “has deep respect for man.”
Despointes had argued that his comments were taken out of context in the documentary on Martinique’s bekes.
“Historians exaggerated the problems a bit. They talk above all about the bad aspects of slavery,” he said in the documentary. “But there were good aspects, too … There were colonizers who were very humane with their slaves.”
Despointes is a well-known businessman in Martinique whose case was followed closely.
He oversees more than 500 workers as a major bottler and distributor of products including Coca Cola and Yoplait.
He also is a member of the Legion of Honor, a French order whose members include military officials, entrepreneurs and renowned athletes.
Frantz Lebon, an attorney representing one of three civil rights groups that filed a complaint, said the conviction “is a warning to all those who want to take the same path,” though he called the penalties “timid” and “purely symbolic.”
In addition to the fine, Despointes was ordered to publish a letter detailing the case and to give more than $3,000 to a local civil rights organization.
The court dropped a separate charge of provoking and inciting racial hatred.
Prosecutor Xavier Hubert had asked for a yearlong prison sentence that could be suspended if Despointes built a memorial dedicated to slaves.
Awaiting a verdict on similar charges is Ghislaine Joachim-Arnaud, one of the leaders of the violent 2009 protests, who wrote a slogan in Creole at the time stating that Martinique belonged to the black majority and accusing the bekes of being thieves and freeloaders.