Two hundred years after an army of African slaves evicted France from the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, Haiti is to begin legal action demanding reparations of £16 billion from its former rulers.

President Jean-Bertrand Aristide made the declaration in a speech marking the bicentennial that was intended to highlight the achievements of the world’s first black republic.

Mr Aristide, 50, said: “1804 was the stinging bee; 2004 is sure to be the honey.”

His backers say the bill is to match the 150 million gold francs Napoleon’s France demanded as the price of recognising Haiti’s independence in 1804. It is increasing at the rate of £22 per second. A team of American and French lawyers is reported to be working on the claim.

But the move has been criticised as an attempt by Mr Aristide to divert attention from the failings of his increasingly dictatorial regime.

The demand had little impact on Haitians. Although the capital is festooned with banners reading “Reparation and Restitution” and car stickers saying “France, pay me my money”, opposition and government supporters again clashed on New Year’s Day, marring the celebrations.

As protesters poured into the streets and tried to march on the palace, police used tear-gas and fired into the air to hold them back. Many of the demonstrators set up road blocks around the city.

Aristide supporters joined police in trying to push the demonstrators back and began throwing stones. The protesters held firm but dispersed when the Aristide side began firing guns.

Mr Aristide, a former slum priest who became popular by making fiery promises to the poor, said that by 2015 Haiti – the western hemisphere’s poorest country – would be prosperous and politically stable, and outlined a 21-point plan that he promised would end the anarchy and civil war that presently grips the country.

The centrepiece of his plan to achieve this is based on the assumption that France will pay up. This is considered unlikely.

The French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, has already rejected the demand and it is uncertain how the latest promise of legal action can be turned into judicial fact.

No French court is likely to hear the claim, and the United Nations is unlikely to become involved with a claim from a regime to which international donors have already suspended £279 million in aid after the disputed 2000 presidential election.

That vote was triggered by the latest phase in the country’s already brutal history. Claiming a flawed election process, a conclusion supported by many international observers, opposition groups boycotted parliamentary elections, leading to a clean sweep by pro-Aristide politicians.

Opposition paramilitary groups, aided by bands of lawless thugs exploiting the instability, began to challenge the government’s authority, resulting in at least 41 deaths since September alone. In Gonaives, the coastal city where Haiti’s independence was proclaimed and a flashpoint of the current political struggle, militants known as the “Cannibal Army” engaged in battles with government troops last month.

Yesterday, a visit to the city by President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, the only globally recognised leader to attend the bicentennial celebrations, had to be abandoned after his advance protection team came under fire.

Haiti – which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic – was born after the world’s only successful slave rebellion. On Nov 18, 1803, French troops surrendered to forces led by Jean-Jacques Dessalines. But in two centuries, Haiti has experienced more than 30 coups.

There was a flicker of hope in 1990 after 29 years of the Duvalier family dictatorship. Mr Aristide was elected by a landslide only to be overthrown the next year. He was restored in 1994 after an American invasion.