On May 12, French president Francois Hollande made history by becoming the first president of France to make a formal state visit to the former colony, Haiti.
Rather than a welcome parade, however, President Hollande was greeted by 200 protesters and renewed calls for reparations.
Calls for reparations are not brand new. After a devastating earthquake ripped through the capital city of Port-au-Prince in 2010, then-president Nicolas Sarkozy made the first visit by a sitting French president to Haiti—though it was not considered a formal state visit. More than 90 academics and scholars from Haiti, Canada, the United States, Europe and beyond signed an open letter to President Sarkozy urging the French government to pay the restitution Haiti is due.
Haiti has long held the title of poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Scapegoated in the Americas for disease, economic troubles and crimes, Haiti has seen little but contempt from the international community since its inception.
At the core of Haiti’s economic history lies a debt forced upon it by its former colonizer, France. And while Haiti paid in blood and money for its independence from France, the French government refuses to open the discussion for reparations.
In 1492, Christopher Columbus arrived in what is now Haiti, and by 1625, the French gained control of the western third of the island of Hispaniola, which also contains the Dominican Republic. The French used extensive slave labor to develop sugar cane fields; Haiti soon became its most profitable colony.
In 1804, the first successful slave revolt led to the world’s first independent Black nation. Haitians succeeded in becoming a free people, but the French — and the international community — weren’t going to let the former slaves off that easy. In 1825, the former colonizers demanded reparations for loss of property (i.e. slaves) to the tune of 125 million francs, which was then reduced to 90 million in 1838.
Haiti would continue paying off that debt to France until 1947—coupled with the international embargo, this left the young country’s economy in ruin.
Critics have long condemned the French government’s refusal to pay reparations, citing the fact that by the time the French government demanded Haiti pay for its independence, France had already outlawed slavery—making the payments illegitimate. Similarly, the fact that Haiti paid this illegal debt until well into the 20th century, long after the Atlantic slave trade was over, should be a source of shame and embarrassment for the French government.
France has always rejected the idea of reparations for Haiti as well as its former African colonies. The French government has offered up the fact that it has canceled Haiti’s $77 million debt and has given millions more in humanitarian aid. This is a noble effort, but aid money often comes with harsh stipulations—and much of the billions promised to Haiti in post-earthquake relief never even made it into Haitian hands.
Though the days of outright colonialism are long behind us, their legacy remains with us today, and poverty is only one aspect. To ignore these renewed calls for reparations and restitution is to ignore history and deny justice. At the least, France has a moral responsibility to open a dialogue on what France owes Haiti, rather than the other way around.