A two years’ worth of research digging through historical archives, coordinated by historian Vincent Duclert with its report handed over to French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday, asserts that France failed in the Rwanda genocide as the then French president, François Mitterrand, and his entourage showed guilty blindness by supporting the regime of Juvénal Habyarimana.
This revelation explains, among other things, France’s military support despite warnings about the risks of genocide.
However, the document does not use the term ‘complicity’ in genocide to describe France’s attitude between April and June 1994 — when nearly 800,000 people, mostly of the Tutsi ethnic group, were killed in Rwanda.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame has long been vocal about the perceived hypocrisy displayed by France as far as human rights given the still unresolved history between the two nations.
France’s policy in Rwanda between 1990 and 1994, led by an “ideologically blinded” president and his entourage, was a “failure” and bears “overwhelming” responsibility for the Tutsi genocide, according to a scathing report by historians submitted to Emmanuel Macron on Friday.
Kigali welcomed “an important step towards a common understanding of the role of France”, in a statement from the Foreign Ministry.
The report “marks a considerable step forward” in understanding the French commitment in Rwanda, the French head of state said in a statement from the presidency.
France, where several people suspected of responsibility for the 1994 genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda have settled, “will continue its efforts” against those responsible for genocide, he added.
The French president said he hoped that the publication of this report would allow an “irreversible” rapprochement with Kigali.
Although relations between the two countries have eased with the arrival in power of Emmanuel Macron in 2017, France’s role in Rwanda has remained a volatile issue for more than 25 years. It is also the subject of a violent and passionate debate between researchers, academics and politicians.
This report of more than 1,000 pages, the result of two years of analysis of French archives, draws up an uncompromising assessment of the military and political involvement of Paris while dismissing the “complicity” of genocide long denounced by Kigali.
This is a downside that did not escape Hubert Védrine, Secretary-General of the French Presidency at the time of the genocide, who welcomed the “honesty” of the report and stressed that it “rules out any complicity on the part of France”.
Present in Rwanda since the Great Lakes country gained independence from Belgium, France “remained blind to the preparation” of the 1994 genocide of the Rwandan Tutsis, asserts in its conclusions the commission of 14 historians chaired by Vincent Duclert, set up in 2019 by Emmanuel Macron.
The historians review the French commitment during these four decisive years, during which the genocidal drift of the Hutu regime was put in place, leading to the tragedy of 1994: some 800,000 people, mostly Tutsi, exterminated in abominable conditions between April and July.
The report describes an African policy decided at the highest level by the Socialist president of the time, François Mitterrand, and his close circle, an entourage motivated by “ideological constructs” or the desire not to displease the head of state.
He describes decision-makers who were “locked into” a post-colonial “ethnicist” interpretation of the situation and who decided to give almost “unconditional” support to the “racist, corrupt and violent” regime of Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana, against a Tutsi rebellion considered to be remotely controlled from English-speaking Uganda.
“This alignment with the Rwandan government is the result of a desire on the part of the head of state and the presidency of the Republic,” write the fourteen historians of the commission, insisting on the “strong, personal and direct relationship” that François Mitterrand had with the Hutu president Juvénal Habyarimana.
This relationship, coupled with an obsession with making Rwanda a territory for the defence of the French-speaking world against the Tutsi rebels who had taken refuge in Uganda, justified “the delivery of considerable quantities of arms and ammunition to the Habyarimana regime, as well as the extensive involvement of the French military in the training of the Rwandan armed forces”.
From October 1990, the date of an offensive by the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front, a former Tutsi rebellion led by Paul Kagame, now President of Rwanda), Paris took up the cause of the Habyarimana regime. It committed itself militarily with the military operation Noroît, which was supposed to protect foreign expatriates, but which de facto constituted a ‘dissuasive’ presence to protect a wavering regime against the rebel offensive.
While urging Habyarimana to democratise his regime and negotiate with his opponents – which led to the Arusha Peace Accords in August 1993 — France ignored the numerous warnings from Kigali and Paris that the regime was drifting towards extremism and the risk of ‘genocide’ of the Tutsis.
Whether they come from the French military attaché in Kigali, NGOs, certain diplomats or the intelligence services, these warnings are ignored or dismissed by the president and his circle.
“One may wonder if, in the end, French decision-makers really wanted to hear an analysis that contradicted the policy implemented in Rwanda,” write the researchers.
The report underlines the heavy responsibility of François Mitterrand’s General Staff (EMP), headed by General Christian Quesnot and his deputy Colonel (now General) Jean-Pierre Huchon.
“The EMP bears a very important responsibility in the installation of a general hostility of the Elysée towards the RPF”, writes the report, which denounces “irregular practices”, even “officine practices” of this body which bypasses all the regular channels to implement French policy on the ground.
With the tacit approval of the president: “no document shows a desire on the part of the head of state to sanction these soldiers or to restrain them in their initiatives,” the report points out.
At the same time, the diplomatic establishment was hardly more critical – with rare exceptions: “the diplomats espouse the dominant position of the authorities without distance or reservation”, and their administration is “impervious” to criticism.
The arrival of a right-wing government in 1993 — France was entering a “cohabitation” period — did not fundamentally change the situation, despite the sometimes “ruthless” confrontations between the Elysée and the government of Prime Minister Edouard Balladur, who was much less inclined towards French involvement in Rwanda.
Inability to think about the genocide
When the genocide began on 7 April 1994, the day after the attack on President Habyarimana’s plane (the report does not name the sponsors, which has been the subject of controversy for nearly 30 years), this did not lead to “a fundamental rethinking of France’s policy, which remains obsessed with the RPF threat”. And even if the head of right-wing diplomacy, Alain Juppé, was the first to speak of “genocide” in mid-May 1994, the reading grid quickly reverted to “inter-ethnic massacres” and a “civil war”.
There is an “obstinacy to characterise the Rwandan conflict in ethnic terms, to define a civil war where there is a genocidal enterprise”, write the historians.
In a context of international withdrawal or immobility — the UN, the former colonial power Belgium, the United States – France was the first to react by launching in June 1994, under a UN mandate, a military-humanitarian operation aimed at “stopping the massacres”.
This controversial operation, Turquoise, certainly “saved many lives, but not those of the vast majority of Rwandan Tutsis exterminated in the first weeks of the genocide”, writes the commission, which stresses that the French authorities “refused to arrest” the masterminds of the genocide who had found refuge in the area under French control. This point is one of the most controversial of the French action in Rwanda.
The political and military leaders of the time argued that they had saved the honour of the international community by being the only ones to intervene in Rwanda.
The genocide ended with the victory of the RPF in July 1994. Since then, France has maintained tense, even execrable, relations with Rwanda, marked by the breaking off of diplomatic relations in 2006.