PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — France owes this country exactly $21,685,135,571.48, the government figures -- not counting interest, penalties or consideration of the suffering and indignity inflicted by slavery and colonization.
Paris swiftly rejected the demand for restitution when Haiti raised the issue in April, on the 200th anniversary of the death of Toussaint Louverture. A revered figure here, Louverture led fellow slaves in throwing off their French colonial oppressors.
Haiti is making a bicentennial spectacle of refusing to take no for an answer. In one of the most colorful campaigns to galvanize citizens in years, the country is awash in banners, bumper stickers, television ads and radio broadcasts demanding payback.
And anyone reading newspapers aligned with President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's government or listening to state-sponsored broadcasts would think a check for the staggering sum was all but in the mail.
Over the past week, an illusion of momentum has emerged following the Group of 8 industrialized nations' summit in Evian, France. On the fringes of the forum, French President Jacques Chirac replied to the repeated restitution demands by contending that Haiti's dire economic straits were more the consequence of corrupt government than thwarted development inflicted by payoffs to France in exchange for recognition of the nation's independence.
"Chirac Recognizes the Arguments for Restitution," proclaimed a banner headline in the daily L'Union, a pro-Aristide paper, after the G-8 summit. Subsequent editions have carried almost daily analyses of imagined signals that the French are about to buckle.
Haiti's state secretary for communications, Mario Dupuy, describes Chirac's allusion to corruption as "verbal violence" but smiles tolerantly in laying out what he sees as the colonial masters' long-term view.
"This is the kind of attack that precedes negotiations," insists Dupuy.
Port-au-Prince originally raised its claim on April 7, 200 years after revolutionary hero Louverture died a captive in a French prison. Seven months later, in November 1803, Haitian slaves defeated French forces and proclaimed the world's first independent black republic.
France recognized Haiti's statehood 35 years later, after the country began paying 90 million francs in gold to compensate French landowners driven out by the revolution.
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin replied to the April appeal with the observation that Paris and the rest of the 15-nation European Union have given Haiti more than $2 billion in aid in recent years. The French contend that Haiti's biggest problems are rooted in the present, not the past.
"Bad governance [and] the degradation of security linked to the current grave political crisis are the main reasons for the social and economic downward drift of the country," said Villepin's spokesman, Francois Rivasseau.
Undeterred, Haitian Foreign Minister Joseph Philippe Antonio told Radio Solidarity in a recent interview that the French are showing "a certain embarrassment" in deflecting the restitution claim with reference to aid projects.
Haiti is the only country to make a formal appeal for compensation from a colonizing and enslaving power, Antonio asserted. He speculated that fear of setting a costly precedent might be holding France back from conceding a debt to Haiti.
Antonio insisted the French government will eventually see its way to comply. "France will pay restitution for the monies that it owes Haiti," he said. "Restitution means to reimburse what you took that did not belong to you, with interest."
The $21.7-billion bill, Dupuy said, is today's value for the 90 million gold francs Paris strong-armed from Haiti in the 19th century. Reparations for moral crimes have yet to be calculated, the government spokesman said.
For many on the sidelines, the squabble is a source of bemusement.
"Haiti has some legitimate complaints. The United States didn't have to pay ransom to Britain when we got our independence," said one U.S. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. "But let's extrapolate French investment and aid over the past 200 years. I doubt that was taken into consideration in arriving at this figure."
Aristide opponents support the notion of French restitution, but see the bicentennial campaign as populist pandering that is likely to leave Haitians disappointed.
"The people already suffer from this habit of crossing their arms and waiting for others to solve our problems," says Micha Gaillard, an activist with the Democratic Convergence alliance of opposition parties. "This restitution issue is encouraging that behavior."
Aristide's Lavalas Party has invested heavily in the campaign jingles, billboards, banners and bumper stickers affixed to stop signs, windshields, baskets and the buckets carried by hawkers on their heads.
"There's been a lot of propaganda. It's a very active campaign," says Yvonna Louis, proprietress of the Bar de L'Amitie, a corrugated metal shack in the center of this squalid capital. She smiles, shrugs and crosses her arms as she concludes: "Who knows? Maybe it will succeed and we will get some money."