France (Not) to Repay Debt to Haiti

A prank website is bringing France’s colonial crimes into the spotlight.

Wednesday was Bastille Day, the day that France celebrates liberty, equality, and fraternity, the famous ideals of the French Revolution. In the spirit of the day, a statement claiming to be from France's foreign ministry announced that France would repay its former colony, Haiti, for the millions of francs it was charged to compensate the colonial power for the slaves it lost when Haiti achieved its independence.

It turns out that the statement is a fake. But it could have been true-at least, that was the implicit message of the news release, which appeared on a website designed to look like that of the French foreign ministry. The release, purported to be from the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign and European affairs, framed the decision as a bold and principled move and a way for France "to celebrate the cherished values of our republic." It promised that "the 90 million gold francs, which Haiti paid France from 1825 until 1947, will be reimbursed in a yearly budget over the course of 50 years. Economic advisors working with the Ministry have calculated that the total sum amounts to EUR 17 billion including adjustments for inflation and a minimal interest rate of 5 percent per annum."

Following the devastating earthquake in Haiti in January, France, Haiti's former colonizer, was quick to lead the call for developed nations to forgive Haiti's debt from past loans. Yet it made no mention of its own role in the creation of that debt.

While the fake news release-a common tactic of the prankster activists the Yes Men, but not yet traced to a particular group-doesn't seem to have fooled any major news outlets, it did bring the debt (and its contradiction with France's public stance) into the spotlight. The Foreign Ministry has responded by vehemently denying the release and is reported to be considering legal action.

Years after Haiti achieved freedom from France-in a dramatic slave uprising that defeated Napoleon in 1804-France threatened to re-invade and demanded to be paid for the slaves it had lost. Though the payment was eventually reduced from 150 million francs to 60 million, it was still much more than the new nation could afford. Haiti took out loans from other creditors, including the United States and Germany, and finally paid off the reparations debt (plus interest) in 1947.

But for Haiti, spending more than its first century of existence in extreme debt was devastating. By 1900, 80 percent of Haiti's national budget was being spent on servicing the French debt, according to historian Alex von Tunzelmann, who wrote that the so-called Independence Debt "did not signify the beginning of freedom, but the end of hope," trapping Haiti in a debt spiral that has continued to the this day.

Many Haitians believe the debt they were forced to take on was illegal, and now think of it as France's debt to them. In 2003, Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide sent France a bill for more than $21 billion. France has ignored the claim.

Still, as when the Yes Men briefly convinced the world that the Dow Chemical Company was planning to pay restitution to the victims of the Bhopal chemical explosion, or published a false edition of The New York Times with the headline, "Iraq War Ends," this is the kind of news that captures headlines not because it's true, but because there are so many people who wish that it were.

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This article was written for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.