- The Washington Times - Monday, March 22, 2004

PARIS — French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin is expected to visit Haiti in the next few weeks, marking the first such trip by a senior official since Haiti gained independence from France 200 years ago.

The decision, following France’s highly public involvement in the removal of President Jean-Bertand Aristide from power, has left many French observers asking what lies behind the sudden interest in one of the nation’s “forgotten countries.”

Officially, the government puts it down to historic and linguistic “solidarity,” noting it has given roughly $200 million in aid to Haiti in the past four years

“Haiti, which is on the doorstep of our overseas territories, which shares our language and is linked to us by a common history, needs our help and our support,” Mr. de Villepin wrote last week in the newspaper Le Figaro.

“The entire country is tormented by chaos, pillaging, desolation. The escalation of violence threatens to escape all control. This is the reason why France is mobilizing itself.”

But outside analysts suggest the French intervention, which includes 800 troops in Haiti, was driven more by strategic considerations and perhaps by the government’s desire to repair its image after a debilitating confrontation with Washington over Iraq.

Christophe Wargny, a former adviser to Mr. Aristide and the author of a new book on French-Haitian relations, said he was surprised by France’s rapid intervention after a ragtag rebel group seized northern portions of the nation.

But he said the turmoil had provided an opportunity for France to play a greater role in America’s own neighborhood, while presenting a humanitarian image to the world.

“The United States did not want to play an important role in Haiti. So France profited from American inertia by taking the initiative and proving to the world that it had a humanist vision, contrary to Bush’s aggressive vision,” he said.

Pro-Aristide legislators and activists in the United States have taken up Mr. Aristide’s claim that he was kidnapped from Haiti and accused the Bush administration of overthrowing an elected leader.

But, in fact, France took an equally important role in facilitating Mr. Aristide’s departure to the Central African Republic and setting up an international peace-keeping force for Haiti.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Herve Ladsous acknowledged that involvement even as he denied that Paris had pressured Mr. Aristide to leave.

“We did not help remove him from power,” Mr. Ladsous said. “We told Mr. Aristide it was his responsibility, in front of a situation that was getting out of control, to draw his own conclusions. He made his own decision to step down.”

Mr. Wargny said Paris was happy to see Mr. Aristide go, not just because he had failed to maintain stability, but because French politicians sympathized with certain leaders of the opposition, members of a French-speaking elite who had studied at top schools in France.

“France had a problem with Aristide,” he said. “Aristide did not go to the Sorbonne or study in France. He does not have the right background. And so he’s perceived as less cerebral than the others.”

France also had a strategic interest in restoring peace to Haiti. It wanted to prevent Haitian refugees from flooding into its nearby territories of Martinique, Guadeloupe and French Guyana.

According to a government-commissioned report, already one-quarter of Guyana’s population is Haitian.

The Haitian crisis also gave France an opportunity to remove some of the bad feelings from the Iraq war by demonstrating it can work with the United States to address an international emergency.

“It was not our direct intention, but it shows the very fact that on many issues, we have very close cooperation with the United States,” Mr. Ladsous said.

“We were in agreement in assessing the situation, in agreement on what to do. French-U.S. relations works in many areas, and Haiti is a good example.”

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