PORT-AU-PRINCE (AFP) – For the first time in Haiti’s 200-year independence from France, a French foreign minister has paid an official goodwill visit to the impoverished Caribbean island.



Michel Barnier arrived Friday for a 24-hour visit. He visited with interim President Boniface Alexandre and met Prime Minister Gerard Latortue here Saturday, as well as Haiti’s ministers of economy and finance, justice, interior and foreign affairs.

Barnier and Latortue signed an accord by which France will grant Haiti one million euros (1.2 million dollars) in direct aid to pay back the salaries of public health and education workers.

Latortue, who visited French President Jacques Chirac in Paris Thursday, hoped that France would come to the aid of the Haitian economy with “a line of credit for French companies to rebuild Haiti’s infrastructure, especially energy and roads.”

Barnier pledged his government would urge other members of the European Union (newsweb sites) to help assist Haiti’s political and economic development.

“You can rely on me to be your spokesman within the European Union,” Barnier told Latortue at a joint press conference.

During an interview Wednesday with Le Monde, Latortue told the Paris newspaper that he estimated needed investments in electricity, roads, health and education at 200 million dollars annually over five years.

France’s relations with Haiti, tense under former president Jean Bertrand Aristide, have warmed in recent months, with Latortue officially inviting Chirac to become the first French head of state to visit Haiti since its independence in 1804.

“It’s not a time for nostalgia. We’ve not always had an easy common history, but we have a lot of reciprocal bonds, primarily the French language,” Barnier said of Franco-Haitian ties.

For his part, Lartortue underlined “the desire of the Haitian government to renew fresh relations with the French government” and thanked France for its help.

Under Aristide, Haiti sought repayment of a “debt of independence,” which he reckoned to be 21 billion dollars. Latortue assured Paris that the claim had no legal foundation.

France has been one of the largest contributors to an interim multilateral force under UN command after the departure of Aristide on February 29.

There are some 1,000 French troops on the ground in Haiti.

Last month, French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie visited Port-au-Prince with a “message of friendship and support from France regarding the Haitian people and their government after a crisis that has shaken their country.”

“This is also a statement of our will to stand by the Haitian people in the long term, to assist and take on the reconstruction of the country,” he said.

Barnier is also meeting the heads of Haitian non-governmental organizations and political parties.

Barnier also visited Dessalines, northwest of the capital, to see a cooperative project between the town and the French regional association “Pays de Savoie solidaires” before visiting an orphanage in Port-au-Prince.

A brief meeting was scheduled with students of a Port-au-Prince agronomy school, as well as with representatives of the French community in Haiti.