French Return to Haiti After 200 Years
By PAISLEY DODDS
The Associated Press
March 28, 2004 3:24 PM
CAP-HAITIEN, Haiti - French troops patrolling this former colony for the first time in 200 years are getting warm welcomes from most Haitians, but some still want Paris to pay $22 billion in restitution called for by ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
The campaign to win restitution was a cornerstone of Aristide's embattled administration, which charged France had wrongly made Haiti pay for its independence after enslaving its people and stealing its riches.
Haiti became the world's first free black republic after declaring independence on Jan. 1, 1804. But France did not recognize Haiti's independence until 1838 - after Haiti began paying France an agreed amount of 90 million gold francs to compensate former plantation owners.
Speaking in November to honor the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Vertieres, which was fought just outside this colonial city, Aristide blamed Haiti's crushing poverty on having to pay off that debt. Payments continued into the 20th century.
Although Aristide and some supporters left last month amid a spreading armed rebellion, the banners reading "Restitution for Haiti Now" that his government put up for bicentennial celebrations in January remain, sometimes with French troops patrolling underneath.
"They made us into slaves but we fought and eventually kicked them out," said Job Denis, a 30-year-old tire repairman. "But then they made us pay for our independence. They owe us that money and it should go to each and every Haitian."
The French troops are part of a multinational force of about 3,000 troops brought in to restore order after the rebellion. It is the first time a French battalion has been deployed to Haiti since its independence, said Maj. Xavier Pons said, spokesman for the French troops.
"There should be no links between 1804 and 2004," Pons said. "But we are sensitive to Haitians being proud of this history. That's why we've slowly increased our presence and we've been very tactful in our approach."
Although armed, the French troops patrol Haiti's north wearing berets, not helmets like the American troops. They also are regularly seen smiling and talking with residents who speak French and Creole.
Eating rations of pate and smoking French and Haitian cigarettes, the troops say they feel at home in their former colony.
The French have nor fired any rounds nor have they been fired on. By contrast, the American military has shot and killed at least six Haitians who they claim fired on U.S. troops or ran roadblocks.
"I feel safe now that they're here," said Emanuel Bienaime, 20. "I think that France has done a lot for this country but it would be nice if they could do more."
A French Navy ship carrying 7 tons of food aid, clothes and medicine docked in Port-au-Prince on Sunday, Lt. Col. Emmanuel Dinh said. The aid, sent by the French Red Cross, will help provide relief in central parts of Haiti.
The new interim government of Prime Minister Gerard Latortue has shied away from the idea of restitution, instead trying to revive hundreds of millions of dollars in aid suspended after Aristide's party swept disputed 2000 legislative elections.
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin is scheduled to visit Thursday to meet with Haiti's new leaders.
France dismissed Aristide's demand for restitution last year, pointing to the nearly $2.4 billion lent to Haiti by the international community. More than $240 million of that aid came from France and was meant to rebuild what was once the richest colony in the New World, thanks to bountiful resources and slave labor.
That prosperity impelled Napoleon Bonaparte to order 15,000 troops to oust Touissant Louverture, a former slave who rallied blacks. The French eventually captured Louverture and imprisoned him in a mountain cell on the French-Swiss border, where he died.
Shortly afterward, French troops weakened by yellow fever and steady battles surrendered to Haitian forces.
Today, the historical link between Haiti and France is undeniable. Although most Haitians speak Creole, most vocabulary is French. Much of the country's distinctive architecture was designed by French or French-schooled architects, particularly in Cap-Haitien, a colonial city of brightly colored houses and graceful iron work.
But grudges are not easily forgotten.
"I feel like I can't live now that the French are here," said Roro Ronex, 27, a mechanic. "The only reason why they're here is because we asked for the money. Now, they'll make us suffer again."