A President of the Republic and his inner circle “blindly” supporting a racist and violent regime: the “bankruptcy” of France and its “overwhelming responsibilities” in the 1994 genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda are exposed in a scathing report delivered on Friday 26th March to Emmanuel Macron.
This historians’ report, the result of two years of analysis of the archives relating to French policy in Rwanda between 1990 and 1994, draws up an uncompromising assessment of the military and political involvement of Paris, while ruling out the “complicity” of genocide long denounced by Kigali.
It could mark a turning point in the relationship between the two countries, poisoned for more than 25 years by the violent controversies over the role of France in Rwanda.
After the publication of this report, Paris called for an “irreversible” rapprochement with Rwanda.
“We hope that this report will be able to lead to other developments in our relationship with Rwanda” and that, “this time, the approach of rapprochement can be started in an irreversible way”, specified the presidency.
A commission of 14 historians
Present in Rwanda since this Great Lakes country gained its independence from Belgium, France “remained blind to the preparation” for the genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994 and bears “heavy and overwhelming responsibilities” in the tragedy, asserts in its conclusions the commission of 14 historians chaired by Vincent Duclert, set up in 2019 by President Emmanuel Macron.
In this report of more than 1,000 pages, historians come back to the French commitment during these four decisive years, during which the genocidal drift of the Hutu regime took place, leading to the tragedy of 1994: some 800 000 people, mainly Tutsi, exterminated in abominable conditions between April and July.
Diplomatic telegrams, confidential notes and supporting letters, the report outlines an African policy decided at the top by the then socialist president, François Mitterrand, and his close circle, an entourage motivated by “ideological constructions” or the will not to displease the Head of State.
He tells of decision-makers “locked” in a post-colonial “ethnicist” reading grid and determined to provide, against all odds, almost “unconditional” support to the “racist, corrupt and violent” regime of Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana, facing to a Tutsi rebellion considered as remote-controlled from English-speaking Uganda.
“This alignment with Rwandan power stems from the will 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 with Hutu President Juvénal Habyarimana.
This relationship, coupled with an obsession with making Rwanda a territory for the defense of the Francophonie 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 very large involvement of the French military in the training of the “governmental Rwandan Armed Forces”.
From October 1990, the date of an RPF offensive (Rwandan Patriotic Front, ex-Tutsi rebellion led by Paul Kagame, who became president of Rwanda), Paris took up the cause of the Habyarimana regime.
It engages militarily with the military operation Noroît, supposed to protect foreign expatriates, but which de facto constitutes a “dissuasive” presence to protect a wavering regime against the rebel offensive.
While urging Habyarimana to democratize his regime and negotiate with his opponents – which will lead to the Arusha peace accords in August 1993 -, France ignores the alerts, however numerous, from Kigali or Paris, warning against the drift extremist regime and the risks of “genocide” of the Tutsi.
The responsibility of François Mitterrand
Whether they come from the French military attaché in Kigali, NGOs, certain diplomats, or intelligence services, these warnings are ignored or dismissed by the president and his circle.
“One can wonder if, finally, the French decision-makers really wanted to hear an analysis which came to contradict the policy implemented in Rwanda”, write the researchers.
The report underlines in particular 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 Elysee towards the RPF”, writes the report, which denounces “the irregular practices”, even the “pharmacy 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 willingness on the part of the Head of State to sanction these soldiers or to retain them in their initiatives,” points out the report.
At the same time, the diplomatic institution is hardly more critical – with rare exceptions -: “diplomats embrace without distance or reserve the dominant position of the authorities”, and their administration is “impervious” to criticism.
The arrival in 1993 of a right-wing government – France enters into “cohabitation” – will not fundamentally change the situation, despite sometimes “ruthless” clashes between the Elysee and the government of Prime Minister Edouard Balladur, much less inclined to the French engagement in Rwanda.
When the genocide began on April 7, 1994, the day after the attack on President Habyarimana’s plane (the report of which did not identify the sponsors, the subject of controversy for nearly 30 years), this did not lead to “a fundamental questioning of the policy of France, which remains obsessed by the threat of the RPF”.
And even if the head of right-wing diplomacy Alain Juppé is the first to speak of “genocide” in mid-May 1994, the reading grid will quickly return to “interethnic massacres” and a “civil war”.
There is an “obstinacy in characterizing the Rwandan conflict in ethnic terms, in defining a civil war where there is a genocidal enterprise”, write historians.
In a context of international withdrawal or immobility – the UN, the former Belgian colonial power, the United States – France will nevertheless be the first to react by launching in June 1994, under a UN mandate, a military-humanitarian operation aimed at “putting an end to the massacres”.
This controversial operation, Turquoise, certainly “made it possible to save many lives, but not those of the vast majority of the Tutsi of Rwanda exterminated in the first weeks of the genocide”, writes the commission, which underlines that the French authorities “refuse to arrest “the sponsors of the genocide who found refuge in the zone under French control.
This point is one of the most controversial of French action in Rwanda.
The political and military leaders of the time, for their part, maintained that they had saved the honor 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 appalling, relations with Rwanda, marked by the breakdown of diplomatic relations in 2006.
Even if relations between Paris and Kigali have relaxed with the arrival to power of Emmanuel Macron in 2017, France’s role in Rwanda has remained an explosive subject for more than 25 years.
It is also the subject of a violent and passionate debate between researchers, academics and politicians.