It did not take long for France to start quarrelling with the United
States over Haiti. The American take-over of the relief operation has
not gone down well with Paris. Media cover over the past two days has
depicted a virtual American invasion, with heavy-handed military
pushing around French agencies. The words domination and even
occupation were used on radio news reports this morning.
Alain Joyandet, the Minister supervising the French operation, said
that he had requested a formal protest to Washington after US
controllers refused landing permission to a French Airbus with a field
hospital on Saturday. The role of the US needs to be clarified,
Joyandet said on Europe1 radio this morning. "It's a matter of helping Haiti, not occupying Haiti." [watch interview here]
French evacuation flights have been delayed while priority is being
given to the US military, Joyandet said. He argued with US commanders
on the airfield and at one stage grabbed a radio microphone to talk to
the Airbus pilots, he added.
The Elysée palace and Foreign Ministry are trying to calm the fuss,
but the annoyance is palpable. Haiti may be in the US back yard, but
France, the former colonial power, sees it as part of its overseas
family. The Pearl of the Caribbean, as the colony was known, is part of
la Francophonie, the French-speaking commonwealth that is run and
financed from Paris. Haiti's writers, artists and musicians have close
links to la Metropole and some 70,000 immigrants live in France. [picture: Alain Joyandet in Haiti]
Listening to the press review on France-Inter radio this morning,
you might have got the impression that Uncle Sam had occupied Haiti.
They quoted L'Alsace newspaper saying that the United Nations, not the United States, should be running Haiti now. "The
take-over of Port-au-Prince airport by the American military is a bad
signal which indicates that the big guys are once again preparing to
impose their law," said L'Alsace. The newspaper also
recalled that occupying Americans "killed thousands" of Haitiens in the
years after their intervention there in 1915.
The state radio quoted an article from Haiti Liberté weekly which accuses un-named powers of imposing themselves on the devastated nation. "The
capitalist countries, exploiters of the riches of the Haitian soil, are
going to come hypocritically to our assistance. Not that we should slap
it away. But we want it disinterested." The article may have been
talking about the west in general, but America was the implied target.
France-Inter did not bother to point out that the weekly in question is
a small leftist journal run by expatriate Haitians from New York.
Three national radio stations also highlighted the London Guardian's front page picture of Americans frolicking in the water by their cruise liner at Labadee, a heavily-protected beach in northern Haiti.
Media commentators have also been discerning ulterior motives behind
President Obama's huge relief operation — showing that the US military
can do more than wage war and scoring some peace credentials to justify
his Nobel Prize. That, at least, was how Europe1 news put it.
L'Humanité, the Communist Party daily, is naturally
accusing Obama of reverting to "the old imperialist imperative" and
establishing a new permanent US military foothold in the Caribbean. On
the other side, Le Figaro, the conservative daily, says that it is the wrong time to criticise the Americans.
Judging by the public chatter on French news sites today, public
feeling is split on similar lines. There is a lot of admiration for
Obama's action as well as complaining about Yankee excess.
France says the European Union has asked it to lead the continent's
Haiti evacuation operations. President Sarkozy is also planning to
assert the French role there by dropping in for a visit in the next
couple of weeks or so. The President is proposing sending 1,000
European gendarmes to Haiti and he is also trying to organise a world
conference to co-ordinate relief.