Hollande's vow to settle ‘debt’ to Haiti sparks confusion

Alain Jocard, AFP

French President François Hollande had some explaining to do after vowing Sunday to “settle the debt” France owes to Haiti, with aides rushing to clarify that the debt referred to was a moral one and did not involve any financial compensation.


Speaking at the inauguration of the ACTe slavery memorial in Guadeloupe on May 10 – France’s national day to commemorate the abolition of the slave trade – Hollande surprised his audience by seemingly making a promise for his upcoming visit to Haiti.

“When I come to Haiti, I will, for my part, settle the debt that we have.”

Within seconds, the announcement was repeated hundreds of times on social media. "Haiti's debt is to be paid? Am I dreaming?" asked one enthusiastic tweet.

Hollande’s words reawakened a claim made by many Haitians: that their country is owed back the money it was required to pay to France after becoming independent in 1804.

To offset the income that would be lost by French settlers and slave owners, France demanded that the newly independent state pay compensation amounting to 150 million gold francs. After a new deal was struck in 1838, Haiti agreed to pay France 90 million gold francs (the equivalent of €17 billion today). It was not until 1952 that Haiti made the final payment on what became known as its "independence debt".

‘An unbearable insult’

But hopes of an imminent repayment were soon swept away. Aides to the French president quickly clarified that he was speaking only of the "moral debt" France owes the nation and not of any financial compensation. The misunderstanding was seen as a blunder by some and taken as an affront by others.

“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," Louis-Georges Tin, president of the Representative Council of Black Associations in France (CRAN), said in a statement. CRAN has called for Haitian restitution for many years.

“Do not let France steal from you a second time; it is up to you to say this loudly and clearly,” he added.

Haiti’s main newspaper, "Le Nouvelliste", also expressed its disappointment.

“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 (colonised Haiti), into wealth for the city,” wrote Editor Frantz Duval in an editorial published on Monday. “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.”

Duval went on to blame the compensation Haiti paid to France throughout the 19th century for "strangling development" and hindering the “evolution of our country”.

In addition to France’s historical obligations, there is also the question of a “debt for the future", Duval wrote.

He went on to note that, following the terrible earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010, then president Nicolas Sarkozy committed almost €300 million in aid on a visit to the devastated country. But the funds never arrived in the chaotic aftermath of the quake; according to AFP, France has so far mobilised just $25 million (€22 million) for help with Haiti's reconstruction.

France also agreed at the time to cancel Haiti’s €56 million in debt, but rejected demands in an open letter from activists, authors and several MPs to pay €17 billion in reparations.

Hollande’s visit on Tuesday will be particularly scrutinised by the Haitians.

Even if no financial debt is paid, "President Hollande can make his speech in Port-au-Prince a starting point for strengthening cooperation between Haiti and France in the most strategic areas," said four Haitian writers in an article published last week in France’s daily "Libération".

The writers said this could include agreements in the fields of education, the environment, scientific cooperation, agribusiness, reconstruction and tourism.

"Hopefully this short trip, after two centuries of fraught relations between the two countries, marks a turning point that goes beyond the symbolic.”

This article was translated from the original in French.

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