France seeks to dispel tensions with US over Haiti

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy stresses that France is working in ‘close cooperation’ with US to bring relief to Haiti, following grumblings by French politicians.

Paris – French President Nicolas Sarkozy moved Tuesday to ease strains with the United States over the relief effort in Haiti, saying Paris and Washington were fully cooperating to help the quake-hit country.

France found itself on the defensive after development minister Alain Joyandet called on the United Nations to clarify the US role in Haiti, saying the priority was "helping Haiti, not occupying Haiti".

Seeking to dispel talk of a rift, Sarkozy said France was working in "close cooperation" with US President Barack Obama's administration to bring relief to Haiti and chart a course for reconstruction.

"I would like to salute the exceptional mobilisation shown by President Obama and the US administration," said Sarkozy during a visit to the French island of La Reunion.

"The role that they are playing with us on the ground is essential."

There have been grumblings from French politicians after the United States cemented its leadership role in Haiti, with some 7,500 troops deployed to the Caribbean island nation.

US forces control the airport in Port-au-Prince and decide which relief planes are allowed to land.

Joyandet, who returned from a visit to Haiti on Saturday, lodged a formal protest with Washington after US troops in Port-au-Prince prevented a French plane carrying medical supplies from landing at the weekend.

"It's about helping Haiti, it's not about occupying Haiti. We need to act so that Haiti can come back to life," Joyandet said on Monday.

Sarkozy has led calls for an international conference on rebuilding Haiti, a former French colony that retains strong ties to Paris despite the fact that US influence in the island nation has increased since the early 1990s.

A Brazilian official said Obama on Monday had asked leaders in Brazil and Canada to join him in shepherding the humanitarian drive.

France's minister for Europe, Pierre Lellouche, downplayed suggestion that Paris was being sidelined by the United States in Haiti.

"No one is excluding anyone," Lellouche said. "America needs Europe and Europe needs the United States."

An international conference is to be held in Montreal on 25 January to help Haiti rebuild after the 7.0-magnitude earthquake levelled buildings, schools and homes, a week ago.

Haitian officials fear the death toll could top 200,000, with more than three million left homeless in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

Sarkozy's office earlier issued a statement stressing the "essential" American role in the quake-struck country.

"French authorities are fully satisfied with the level of cooperation between the two countries," said the Elysee statement.

"They welcome the exceptional mobilisation of the United States for Haiti and the essential role they are playing on the ground," it added.

France has sent hundreds of rescuers, two navy ships and tonnes of aid to Haiti, while pressing the European Union to deploy a security force to quell the chaos from desperate survivors fighting for food and water.

Sarkozy has said he plans to travel to Haiti in the coming weeks for talks with Haitian President Rene Preval, on "how we can very quickly, after this catastrophe, rebuild this battered country."

"There is no American takeover of Haiti," commented analyst Philippe Moreau-Defarges from the French Institute of International Relations.

By intervening quickly in Haiti, the United States could prevent a massive influx of refugees on its shores, he said. "They are right to put the maximum resources because the consequences could be dramatic."

AFP / Expatica

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