A group of international academics and authors has written to Nicolas Sarkozy calling on France to reimburse the crushing "independence debt" it imposed on Haiti nearly 200 years ago.
The open letter to the French president says the debt, now worth more than €17bn (£14bn), would cover the rebuilding of the country after a devastating earthquake that killed more than 250,000 people seven months ago.
Its signatories - including Noam Chomsky, the American linguist, Naomi Klein, the Canadian author and activist, Cornel West, the African-American author and civil rights activist, and several renowned French philosophers - say that if France repays the money it would be a solution to the shortfall in international donations promised following the earthquake.
Despite pledges at an international donors' conference in March of aid totalling £3.4bn, only five countries - Brazil, Norway, Australia, Colombia and Estonia - have sent aid amounting to about £325m.
The letter, published in the French newspaper Libération today says the debt was "patently illegitimate ... and illegal".
The debt dates back to when Haiti, then St Dominique, was France's most profitable colony thanks to slavery. In 1791 the slaves revolted, and in 1804, after defeating Napoleon's forces, they founded the world's first independent black republic.
But after independence, French slave owners demanded compensation. In 1825 the French monarch Charles X demanded Haiti pay an "independence debt" of 150m gold francs - 10 times the fledgling nation's annual revenue. The original sum was reduced but Haiti still paid 90m gold francs - about €17bn today - to France. It was still paying off this debt in 1947.
In 2004, a lawsuit launched by Haiti to recover the money was abandoned when France backed the overthrow of the government.
Campaigners say the debt was illegal even in 1825, because when the original demand for compensation was made slavery was technically outlawed.
Their letter says: "The 'independence debt', which is today valued at well over €17bn ... illegitimately forced a people who had won their independence in a successful slave revolt, to pay again for the freedom.
"In 2003, when the Haitian government demanded repayment of the money France had extorted from Haiti, the French government responded by helping to overthrow that government."
The letter describes France's actions as "inappropriate responses to a demand that is morally, economically, and legally unassailable", adding: "In light of the urgent financial need in the country in the wake of the devastating earthquake of January 12, 2010, we urge you to pay Haiti, the world's first black republic, the restitution it is due."
The letter has also been signed by members of parliament from Europe, Canada and the Philippines, as well as scholars, journalists and activists in France, Haiti, the US, Canada, the UK, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Germany.