French President François Hollande may have put his foot in his mouth ahead of his arrival in Haiti on Tuesday, the final stop on a five-day diplomatic tour of the Caribbean. On Monday, Hollande became the first French head of state to visit Cuba, where he met President Raul Castro and his brother Fidel.
Hollande is the second French president to visit Haiti — the former French colony of Saint-Domingue, which gained independence in 1804. In February 2010, then president Nicolas Sarkozy visited Haiti in the aftermath of the 7.0 earthquake that killed upwards of 230,000 people.
Hollande addressed delegates at a Caribbean climate summit on the French Caribbean island of Martinique on Saturday, calling for "rich countries to help poor countries fight global warming." The meeting came ahead of the UN's global climate change conference, which will be held in Paris in December.
The following day, Hollande inaugurated the world's largest slavery memorial in Pointe-à-Pitre, the largest city on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. During his speech, Hollande spoke about the decolonization and evoked France's "debt" to Haiti — once France's most prosperous colony.
"When I go to Haiti, I will, for my part, handle the debt that we have," he said.
Hollande caused some confusion with his comments, with many thinking the president was referring to the 90 million gold francs ($19 billion today) Haiti agreed to pay to France in 1838 to fully secure its independence.
In 2010, a collective of scholars, artists and politicians — including Noam Chomsky and green party politician Eva Joly — sent an open letter to then president Sarkozy urging France to "reimburse" the "independence debt" paid out by Haiti as compensation to slaveholders for the loss of slaves and property. The money, they argued, would make up for a shameful injustice and help the country rebuild after the devastating earthquake.
Frantz Duval, editor-in-chief of Haitian daily Le Nouvelliste, has taken umbrage at Hollande's subsequent backpedalling that the "debt" was a "moral" one, not a financial one.
"Did French President François Hollande actually say what Haitians think he said? Did we understand the meaning behind the message?"
While those who were hoping for financial reparations to Haiti will be disappointed by the news, Hollande's remarks have rekindled the debate on the Haiti indemnity controversy. In an article published Monday, Duval said the "indemnity" had "hindered Haiti's economy" and "slowed [the country's] growth."
And in a statement released Monday, Louis-Georges Tin, president of the Representative Council of France's Black Associations (CRAN), addressed Haitians directly, telling them they were "being taken for a ride."
"This backtracking is an unbearable insult to you, to us," said Tin. "Don't let France rob you a second time."
The statement came two days after CRAN announced it is suing Ernest-Antoine Seillière, the former head of French employers' union MEDEF, because his family had made its fortune from the slave trade.
"In refusing [to pay] compensation, they make themselves liable for the crime that they are vainly trying to dissociate themselves from," Tin said.
Historian Christophe Warny said it was possible Hollande was ignorant about the old wound of the indemnity controversy. "I don't think he knew about the financial debt. As a good leftist president, it's always good to mention the moral debt, because of colonization," Warny told VICE News.
"We've completely forgotten about Haiti," he added. "Haitians remember France, but the French know nothing about this country. [19th century French abolitionist] Victor Schoelcher is the only political figure to have complained about the debt that was collected from the Haitians."
Following the slave revolt that led to Haiti's independence in 1804, French slave owners estimated their losses in order to seek reparations from the fledgling nation. In 1825, France's King Charles X demanded Haiti pay its former colonizer 150 million gold francs — a sum that was later reduced to 90 million. In order to pay off the debt — which was finally settled in the first half of the 20th century — Haiti was forced to borrow from and pay interest to France.
The thorny issue of Haiti's "independence debt" was already raised in 2002, when then Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide called for France to reimburse the money it collected in the 19th century. According to Warny, Aristide may have only resurrected the issue to deflect from intense scrutiny over the country's human rights record.
The historian also explained that no other former colony has ever been forced to pay "reparation" to its former colonizer.
"Only in Haiti were the descendants of slaves forced to pay an indemnity to the colonizers," he told VICE News.
In 2013, 14 Caribbean nations decided to sue their former colonizers — including France, Britain, and the Netherlands — for damages caused by the slave trade. When slavery was finally abolished in 1834, Britain paid out 20 million pounds — the equivalent of 200 billion pounds today ($313 billion) to former slave owners in the Caribbean as compensation.
Follow Matthieu Jublin on Twitter: @MatthieuJublin