PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced a financial and aid package of nearly half a billion dollars on Wednesday to assist quake-hit Haiti, as he became France’s first head of state to visit the former French Caribbean colony.
The support package totaling 326 million euros ($447 million) included cancellation of 56 million euros of debt, 100 million euros of fresh funds to be provided over two years and 65 million euros to be channeled through the European Union.
“I have come to tell Haiti’s people that they are not alone ... France will be at your side in the long term,” Sarkozy told a news conference in the grounds of the Haitian presidential palace which partly collapsed in the January 12 earthquake.
More than 200,000 people were killed and more than a million left homeless by the quake, one of the most destructive in modern history, which has triggered a big international relief effort and reconstruction plans by foreign donors.
Speaking alongside Haitian President Rene Preval, Sarkozy said his visit, the first ever by a French president to Haiti, aimed to “turn the page” on France’s long history of troubled relations with its former Caribbean territory.
Haiti wrested its independence from France in 1804 after a bloody revolt by black slaves against their white masters.
Speaking earlier at the French embassy in Port-au-Prince after flying by helicopter over the worst-damaged areas of the city, Sarkozy ruled out any idea of “international stewardship” over Haiti while foreign donors assisted in its recovery.
“International aid must be massive and be there for the long term,” he said, while stressing that the recovery project would remain under the control of the Haitian government.
In a sprawling tent city housing thousands of quake survivors in front of the palace, a group of demonstrators, supporters of former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, staged a protest against Preval’s government and against the French president’s visit.
But other Haitians said they were happy Sarkozy had come to help Haiti rebuild after the catastrophic natural disaster.
“Our ancestors built our independence and France was angry, but that’s forgotten now and Mr. Sarkozy has come to give millions to Haiti. That will encourage other leaders to come to help us,” said Guillaume Imondial, 29, as he peered through the iron railings of the damaged palace.
The French presidency said in a statement French assistance would include the supply of 1,000 tents and 16,000 tarpaulins to shelter 200,000 homeless people during Haiti’s rainy season, which typically begins in late March or April.
France also will provide 10 experts to work with Haiti’s Prime Minister and his staff on the recovery effort for two years. Other experts will undertake short-term missions.
In addition, France will rebuild a university hospital and carry out a preparatory study to reconstruct the badly damaged ornate, white presidential palace in Port-au-Prince.
Preval thanked Sarkozy for France’s support.
“You came, you listened, you saw,” said the Haitian president, who on Monday held talks with visiting Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
International donors are providing emergency aid to victims of the quake but are also looking to support Haiti’s long-term recovery to try to pull the Western Hemisphere’s poorest state out of a cycle of poverty and political instability.
“We’re not going to just reconstruct the country, we’re going to build it again, refound it,” Preval said, adding the recovery would seek to bring development to rural areas to ease the pressure on the crowded, shattered capital Port-au-Prince.
France, along with the United States and Canada and many other governments, will participate in a high-level donors conference for Haiti next month in New York.
Economists from the Inter-American Development Bank have estimated the cost of rebuilding Haiti after the quake could reach nearly $14 billion, making it proportionately the most destructive natural disaster in modern times.
Preval has said his government is discussing the creation of a common fund for Haiti’s recovery to be managed in partnership with donors. Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernandez has estimated this fund could total $10 billion over five years. Other leaders say a decade will be needed for rebuilding.
Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry; Editing by Tom Brown and Eric Walsh