PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, May 14, 2015 (AMG) — French President François Hollande concluded his five-day tour of the Caribbean on Tuesday with a stop in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where he made clear that the issue of reparations to Haiti – its former colony – were not being contemplated by his government.
The visit marked only the second time that a sitting French head-of-state travelled to the struggling nation since former President Nicolas Sarkozy went there in early 2010, after a devastating earthquake killed more than 300,000 Haitians and displaced countless more.
Hollande’s visit came on the heels of his speech at the inauguration of a slavery memorial in Guadeloupe on Sunday, which appeared to address the contentious question of France’s debt to Haiti — reigniting the hopes of many who have called for a re-evaluation of French policy on the issue of Haitian reparations.
“When I go to Haiti, I will, for my part, handle the debt that we have,” the French leader proclaimed to thunderous applause. But with many taking his statements literally, as several observers hailed them as an endorsement of concrete financial reparations, Hollande’s staff subsequently clarified that he referred strictly to France’s more abstract “moral debt” to Haiti, rather than monetary compensation.
Sordid history: Prior to winning its independence from France on January 1, 1804 and becoming the world’s first Black republic, Haiti was France’s most prosperous, slave-driven, overseas colony.
In 1825, the French government demanded, in exchange for its formal recognition of Haiti’s independence, that the former colony compensate the French plantation owners that had lost property and slaves during Haiti’s 1791-1804 revolution, twenty years before. Significantly, slavery had already been outlawed in France for years by that time, calling into question the legality of Paris’ reparation proposal from the outset. Even so, the Haitian government was eager to acquire diplomatic legitimacy and agreed to cover the debt.
The so-called “independence debt” that France extracted from Haiti amounted to around 90 million gold francs ($18.9 billion), which was ten times the young country’s annual public revenue in 1825. It crippled Haiti’s economic growth for well over a century and enriched the French banks that helped finance Haiti’s regular debt payments.
Though the burdensome debt was, and still is, widely regarded as morally and legally illegitimate, Haiti paid off the full sum, along with the substantial accumulated interest it owed to French lenders, by 1952.
Since then, there have been repeated calls by many, including Haiti’s ousted former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, for France to begin repaying billions in reparations to its former colony in order to atone for the unjust “independence debt” and aid the now poverty-stricken nation.
More recently, a joint statement from the Office of International Lawyers and the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti was also supportive of financial reparations:
“If the international community really wants to help Haiti, repayment of the independence debt will be at the top of the agenda, not off the table. A just repayment of the independence debt, by contrast, would allow Haiti to develop the way today’s wealthy countries did — based on national priorities set inside the country. It would also right a historical wrong, and set a strong example of a powerful country respecting the rule law with respect to a less powerful country.”
France passed a 2001 law that formally characterized slavery and the sale of humans as crimes against humanity, acknowledging France’s own historic involvement in the atrocious slave trade in the process. But while the French government cancelled Haiti’s outstanding debt after the horrendous 2010 earthquake – which then stood at US$81.2 million – it has steadfastly resisted proposals for reparations to Haiti for years.
“An insult”: President Hollande’s faux pas has offended many in Haiti and the Haitian diaspora.
“Haitians, they’re laughing at you. This about-face, which is an insult to you, which is an insult to all of us, is unbearable. Because everyone heard correctly what Mr. Hollande said,” said Louis-Georges Tin, President of the Representative Council of Black Associations in France (CRAN). “Do not let France steal from you a second time; it is up to you to say this loudly and clearly,” Tin added.
Frantz Duval, editor of Haiti’s main newspaper Le Nouvelliste, expressed similar disappointment, blaming Haiti’s independence debt for strangling development and hindering the evolution of Haiti:
“The moral debt that is owed is for having enslaved the blacks who were uprooted from Africa to transform every drop of their sweat and blood, and each parcel of land on Saint Dominique [colonized Haiti], into wealth for [Paris]. For this moral debt, Haiti does not seek compensation. We agree that it is irreparable. We leave it to be a stain on the civilised world.”
For his part, the Haitian President was less forceful on the issue of debt repayment, saying that while Haiti had not forgotten the past, the country now needed services “more than any amount of money for people to fight over.” Meanwhile, Hollande has pledged $145 million over the next five years on development projects in Haiti, which will include spending of $56 million in education.
In contrast, a commitment in 2010 by Hollande’s predecessor and former French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, to provide $340 million in post-earthquake aid to Haiti had never materialized – with AFP reporting that France had only mobilized just $25 million to help with Haiti’s reconstruction.