PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — French President Nicholas Sarkozy announced in a landmark visit Wednesday that his country would cancel Haiti's $56 million in debt as it pledged hundreds of millions in aid to help its former colony recover from a crippling earthquake that claimed more than 200,000 lives.
Signaling a fresh chapter in diplomacy between Haiti and France, Sarkozy's four-hour trip marks the first time a French leader has set foot in Haiti since the Caribbean nation expelled the French in a slave revolt and secured its independence more than 200 years ago.
"Our presence did not leave good memories," Sarkozy conceded outside the still-standing French Embassy in downtown Port-au-Prince.
In a pair of speeches — a second in front of the flattened National Palace, with Haitian President Rene Preval at his side — Sarkozy stressed the need for local officials to shift power from the capital of Port-au-Prince to the provinces — something, he said, that could have prevented the loss of so many lives in the Jan. 12 quake.
Sarkozy announced that $245 million has been earmarked for rebuilding as well as $54 million for the Haitian government's budget.
"It was a very important visit for us, historically," Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive told the Miami Herald after meeting with Sarkozy. "But it was also very productive."
Bellerive said the officials spoke about how Haiti should take the lead as it works with the international community to rebuild the battered nation.
Haiti and France have had uneasy relations ever since slaves on the western side of the island of Hispaniola fought off French troops and declared independence in 1804.
After the Embassy speech, Sarkozy briefly walked through Champ de Mars, Haiti's largest camp of displaced people, where the French say they have distributed 600 tents.
Camp dweller Nancy Marc said she recognized that Sarkozy's visit was purely symbolic but found his presence comforting.
"Since the day of the earthquake, nobody has visited us," said Marc, 29, who lost her sister in the disaster. "We're happy the president came here, and that gives us hope."