It should have been a chance to remember the dead and to remind everybody that genocide is more than just a paragraph in history books. Yet in France, the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide took on a different and all too familiar shape: the umpteenth controversy on the role the country played in the atrocities.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame, the former head of the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), who is credited for putting the country back on track after 1994 and at times frowned upon for dictatorial tendencies, accused France of having played a “direct role” in the genocide in an interview with magazine Jeune Afrique , published the weekend before 7 April.
Kagame reiterated his claims during his commemorative speech. “Après tout, les faits sont têtus”, facts are stubborn after all, he declared in French to the 30,000 attending the commemoration and the watching international community.
The President’s charges are nothing new. In the years leading up to April 1994, when 800,000 Rwandans were killed in the quickest genocide in history, the French government, under the leadership of Socialist President François Mitterrand, sided with the Hutus in power.
According to the New York Times, this support translated to “helping to equip, arm and, according to many, train the Rwandan military”. Part of Kagame’s accusation is that these arms and skills were then put into practice and used to kill Tutsis and Tutsi-friendly Hutus between April and mid-July 1994. Four years later, the French parliament expressed regret for its support of the Juvénal Habyarimana regime, arguing it had done so to guarantee a return to peace, the only thing capable of establishing democracy and the respect of human rights.
The second part of Kagame’s claims is that despite the French forces present in Rwanda to stop the killing as part of Opération Turquoise (June-August 1994), atrocities kept happening in the very regions the military had been tasked with protecting. The accusation is clear: at best they turned a blind eye for lack of resources, at worse they actively looked the other way. According to a Jeune Afrique interview with french officer Guillaume Ancel, Opération Turquoise initially aimed to stop the RPF from advancing whilst sparing the government’s forces.
Then there is the lack of action against the Hutus who, in the wake of the genocide, found safe haven in France until the trial of genocidaire Pascal Simbikangwa earlier this year. An estimated 27 Rwandans who took part of the genocide currently live in France.
Kagame’s Jeune Afrique interview was far from the first time these facts, disputed by the French authorities, were levied against the country. In 2008, the official report by the National Independent Commission Charged With Gathering Evidence to Show the Implication of the French Government in the Genocide Perpetrated in Rwanda in 1994 (the Mucyo report), accused France of knowing about the genocide plans. According to the Mucyo report, not only did France do nothing to stop them but it also actively took part in some key initiatives. France didn’t recognise the commission because it considered it to be biased and lacking legitimacy.
Thirteen high-profile French politicians, including Mitterrand, his Prime Minister Edouard Balladur, foreign affairs ministers and chiefs of staff and soldiers from Opération Turquoise, accused of killing Tutsis and Tutsi-saving Hutus of raping Tutsi women, were directly incriminated. The Rwandan government announced it wanted to pursue matters judicially, straining diplomatic relationships between the two states.
Alain Juppé, the then French foreign affairs minister, didn’t take kindly to Kagame’s claims. He took to his blog to remind that he, and therefore France, was the first to dare name what was going on in Rwanda a “genocide”, both at the Assemblée Nationale and to the 1994 equivalent of the Foreign Affairs Council. In international relations, using the words requires a lot more guts than the atrocities the term covers should demand.
Juppé also reiterated that France had played a key role in the 1992 Arusha Peace Agreement between the Government of the Republic of Rwanda and the RPF, an attempt to end the civil which had started with the latter’s invasion of Rwanda in 1990, after which most French troops left the region.
Knowingly or not, Kagame’s latest accusations exploited France’s weakness for avoiding the mirror, when it comes to history. Rwanda is but one instance in a string of historical moments, including World War II and Algeria, where the country often hides under a handy “we can’t know until the archives are open”.
Archives were at least partially opened in 1998, four years after the end of the genocide when, somewhat embarrassed by ongoing national and international accusations levied against its name, France launched a parliamentary inquiry.
Following the eight-month inquiry, which included witnesses and document reviews in both countries, the commission concluded that Rwandans alone had carried out the 1994 massacres and that since the French military representation there was down to 24 technical assistants in April 1994, the UN bore the brunt of responsibility for not stopping the genocide.
The current consensus is: sure, we could have done more to prevent or stop the genocide but so could have the rest of the international community. At fault but not guilty, or at least not as much as Kagame would like you to believe.