By Robert Marquand, Christian Science Monitor
France on Tuesday rejected a petition calling for it to pay $17 billion to help with Haiti earthquake reconstruction as a way to make amends for fees charged Haiti by the French crown 200 years ago.
France dismissed a call by left-leaning politicians and others for it to pay the modern equivalent of 90 million gold francs – about $17 billion – to Haiti as reparations for a 200-year-old injustice.
A petition signed by 100 artists, scholars, and EU politicians that was released Monday called on France to give Haiti $17 billion for earthquake reconstruction. The money would essentially reimburse a fee French King Charles X charged Haiti after a revolt that ended slavery there. King Charles justified the fee as compensation for the loss of slaves and other property.
Such requests are not new, authorities say, arguing that France has given substantial aid and debt relief to its former colony, and plans more.
The British Guardian and French Liberation dailies yesterday ran the open letter to French president Nicolas Sarkozy signed by the likes of US academics Cornel West and Noam Chomsky, EU political figures Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Eva Joly, columnist Naomi Klein, and a host of US and French academics, rappers, and public figures.
Some 90 million was “extorted” by the French crown for losses in slaves and property and “illegitimately forced a people who had won their independence in a successful slave revolt, to pay again for their freedom,” the letter states.
By 1804 a Haitian revolt against colonial France made it the first independent former black slave republic. But faced with threats of a French blockade, invasion, and isolation, Haiti agreed to pay, taking until 1947 to pay-off interest on what is known as its “independence debt.” Accompanied by 14 gunships in 1825, France demanded Haiti pay for its freedom and slave value to the tune of 150 million gold francs (reduced in 1838) by borrowing from a French bank.
Two days ago President Sarkozy, citing the Pakistan floods, Russian wildfires, and the Haitian earthquake, called on the European Union to develop a “rapid response” to global natural disasters.
But the call contrasts with an Aug. 6 statement by UN Haitian special envoy Bill Clinton, who said that only 10 percent of the $5.6 billion promised to Haiti at a donor’s conference last March had come through.
Sarkozy, who became the first French head of state to visit Haiti last February, implied France still owes something to the country: “Our presence here did not leave only good memories. Even if I did not start my mandate at the time of Charles X, I am still responsible in the name of France.”
Responding to the petition, foreign ministry spokesperson Christine Fages said France gives Haiti $25 million a year, has given $30 million in humanitarian aid since the earthquake in January that left some 250,000 dead, has erased a $72 million in debt, and plans a total of $420 million more in aid through next year.
French officials did not address the legitimacy of the debt, with analysts saying such an admission could open a flood-gate of former colonial claims. France, for its part, has steadily requested that Moscow recompense a group of French investors that prior to 1917 put vast sums into the Russian rail system. Lenin declared the debt void under Soviet rule. But recently Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin agreed to reopen negotiations.
A set of activists hacked onto the French foreign ministry website on Bastille day. The “Committee for the Reimbursement of the Indemnity Money Extorted from Haiti (CRIME)” left a bogus announcement that the French government had finally agreed to repay the money it received from Haiti in the 19th century. Days later officials said they might prosecute the hackers.
In the open letter, signees said that, “We believe the ideals of equality, fraternity and liberty would be far better served if, instead of pouring public resources into the prosecution of these pranksters, France were to start paying Haiti back for the 90 million gold francs that were extorted following Haitian independence.”
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