France’s Debt to Haiti Remains Despite Hollande’s and Martelly’s Attempt to Rewrite History*
By Isabelle L. Papillon
It was to cries of “Long Live Dessalines, Down with Hollande!” that Haitian protesters welcomed French President François Hollande during his visit to Haiti on May 12, the last stop of several he made in the Caribbean over the past week.
Haitian President Michel Martelly and his de facto Prime Minister Evans Paul greeted President Hollande with a red carpet at the Port-au-Prince airport. The French delegation was made up of some 300 people: members of the government and Parliament, representatives of five French overseas territories, university officials, cultural figures, businessmen, and 60 journalists.
Hollande’s visit to Haiti of less than 24 hours was his first and reflected the domination which France still exerts over its former colony. The visit comes five years after former French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s visit to Haiti shortly after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake.
Thousands of Haitian demonstrators seized the occasion to once again demand reparations for slavery and colonialism as well as restitution of the debt of 90 million French francs which Haiti paid France from 1825 to 1947. In 2001, France officially recognized that slavery was a crime against humanity. Calling on France to concretely remedy this crime, in 2003, then President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s government asked France to repay Haiti’s “independence debt,” with interest, which Haiti assessed at about $21.6 billion. France scoffed at the request, the first by any former colony, and joined with Washington to foment the Feb. 29, 2004, coup against Aristide.
In 2006, former French President Jacques Chirac formally decreed May 10 the date to memorialize the evils of the slave trade.
On May 10, 2015, President Hollande invited President Martelly and over 50 heads of state and government, as well as the representatives of international institutions, to the inauguration of the world’s largest centre commemorating slavery: the ACTE Memorial in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe.
In his May 10 speech, Hollande saluted Martelly’s presence representing the first nation to break slavery’s chains by defeating French troops.
“This memorial will tell the world that the fight for human dignity is not over,” Hollande said.
Then Hollande shocked the crowd when he denounced the treaty to repay 150 million gold francs which French King Charles X extorted from Haiti in 1825 as “the independence ransom.” (The “ransom” was reduced to 90 million gold francs in 1893.) Hollande then declared:
“When I get to Haiti, I will in my turn pay the debt we have” to Haiti.
An open letter to the Haitian people
The surprise declaration drew great applause from the audience, which included many Caribbean leaders who have recently been petitioning former colonial powers for reparations, following Haiti’s lead. Unfortunately, Hollande’s remarks were disingenuous, as Louis-Georges Tin, president of the Representative Council of Black Associations (CRAN), explained in an open letter to the Haitian people.
“The people who gave birth to Dutty Boukman, Cécile Fatiman, Toussaint Louverture, and Jean-Jacques Dessalines must now rise again,” Tin wrote. “Haitians, François Hollande, the French president, will be in your land on May 12. He will want to speak: let him keep silent. It is for you to speak. As soon as he begins his speech, let a chant begin silently, let it spread from one to the next, like spark that gradually engulfs a savanna in flames.
“And let all say, and all roar ‘Restitution, Reparations!’ Until the President has accepted your just request, continue unabated, ‘Restitution, Reparations!’
“On May 10, at the inauguration of the new memorial to slavery in Guadeloupe, François Hollande gave an historic speech concerning reparations. He vowed to return to Haiti the “ransom” imposed by France. …
“But hours later, a press release from the French president’s entourage to the national and international press claimed that there was a misunderstanding, that the remarks of President Hollande referred only to a ‘moral debt’ and not a financial one, as some had understood.
“Haitians, they are laughing at you. This reversal is an unbearable insult made to you, which is made to us. Because everyone heard the words of Mr. Hollande, who spoke before several African and Caribbean heads of state. Haitians, that money was stolen from you. Do not let France rob you again. It is for you to say it loud and clear. We are not far from victory. As soon as he begins his speech, let Haiti’s voices gradually rise up, along with the voices of the ancestors and all say, all roar: ‘Restitution, Reparations!’”
President Martelly certainly did not go this far. He did not in his speech remind Hollande that the “independence debt” is money stolen from Haiti and that France must repay it at all costs. Instead, he did a kind of arrogant begging. He condemned the debt as destructive, imposed on Haiti to compensate the former colonists, with a view to hobbling the new state born on Jan. 1, 1804. “How many countries could feel themselves free in such an adverse and unfavorable situation?” Martelly asked in a round-about way.
Then, instead of demanding restitution and reparations for Haiti, President Martelly began to throw flowers to Hollande, claiming, quite ironically, that French aid now “allows generations of young people in Haiti access to education, which is worth much more than whatever number you put on the debt,” a thinly veiled dig at Aristide’s 2003 demand.
Claiming that the “Haitian youth is now unprepared to face its future,” Martelly servilely pleaded with Hollande for “a Marshall plan for education in Haiti.”
Hollande so greatly appreciated Martelly’s approach that he simply replied:
”We cannot change history, but we can change the future by enabling young Haitians to have access to knowledge, know-how, and success; this is our duty.”
As usual with Martelly, nothing is put as a political demand but rather as a chance to “make money.”
“Haiti wants the creation of a bi-national commission to encourage French and European entrepreneurs to come explore the many existing business opportunities in the country in areas where their expertise and comparative advantage are tested: water, electricity, sanitation, infrastructure, agro-industry, etcetera,” Martelly said.
Meanwhile, thousands of demonstrators, particularly popular organization militants, protested on the Champ de Mars, demanding restitution and reparations. University students dressed as yoked-together slaves and carried anti-Hollande posters. The demonstrators also denounced that Hollande paid tribute to Toussaint Louverture, the precursor of independence who died in a French prison in April 1803, while General Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the father of the nation, was ignored. On some of the many placards, one could read: “Long live restitution, long live reparations, down with occupation,” a reference to the continuing United Nations force—MINUSTAH—deployed in Haiti since 2004.
Around 10:30 a.m., former senator and current presidential candidate Moise Jean-Charles laid a wreath at Dessalines’ statue, but the police intervened with heavy gunfire and a water cannon to disperse the crowd before the French president’s arrival.
In short, the Haitian people continue to make their demand for restitution and reparations to President Hollande, just as they did to Sarkozy in 2010.
Among the refrains in the songs the demonstrators chanted: “We will never betray ourselves, our blood is from Dessalines.”