French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday acknowledged his country’s “crushing responsibility” for the 1994 Rwandan genocide, but stopped before issuing a clear public apology.
“France has a role, a history and a political responsibility towards Rwanda. It has a duty: to face history head-on and recognize the suffering it has inflicted on the Rwandan people by valuing the silence on the examination of the truth for too long, ”Macron said in a speech at the Kigali Genocide Memorial. , where the remains of 2.5 lakh victims of the genocide are buried.
“Standing here today, with humility and respect, by your side, I have come to recognize our responsibilities.”
These remarks were welcomed by Rwandan President Paul Kagame – fierce critic of France since the genocide – who described them as “more valid than an excuse” and “an act of great courage”.
France’s partial admission of guilt is seen as part of an effort to mend ties with its former colonies and sphere of influence in Africa, where many still have painful memories of their subjugation, and continue to see French actions with suspicion.
What did Macron say?
In a speech that should go a long way to repairing long-standing relations with Rwanda, Macron went much further than his predecessors in admitting France’s role in the genocide, saying: “Only those who made it through that night- there maybe can forgive, and in doing so, give forgiveness. “
“France failed to understand that, while trying to prevent a regional conflict, or a civil war, it was in fact standing alongside a genocidal regime,” Macron said, “In doing so, it endorsed a overwhelming responsibility “.
In what seemed to be an explanation for not making a clear apology, the French leader said: “Genocide cannot be excused, we live with it”. However, he pledged efforts to bring genocide suspects to justice.
The Rwandan genocide
The Rwandan genocide from April to July 1994 was the culmination of long-standing ethnic tensions between the Tutsi minority community, which controlled power since colonial rule by Germany and Belgium, and the Hutu majority. Over 100 days, the tragedy claimed the lives of more than 8 lakh, estimated at 20% of the Rwandan population.
Hutu militias systematically targeted the Tutsi ethnic group and used the country’s public broadcaster, Rwanda Radio, to broadcast propaganda. Military and political leaders have encouraged sexual violence as a means of warfare, which has resulted in the rape, genital mutilation or murder of around 5 lakh of women and children. About twenty lakh fled the country.
The conflict ended when the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front took control of the country in July and its leader Paul Kagame seized power. Kagame, who has ruled Rwanda since then, has been credited with bringing stability and development to the mineral-rich nation, but he has been blamed for cultivating an environment of fear for his political opponents both at home and abroad.
What role did France play during these events?
During the genocide, Western powers, including the United States, were accused of their inaction which encouraged atrocities. France, which was then ruled by Socialist President Francois Mitterrand, gained notoriety after being accused of acting as a staunch ally of the Hutu-led government that ordered the massacres.
In June 1994, France deployed a much delayed UN-backed military force in southwestern Rwanda called Operation Turquoise, which was able to save some people but was accused of harboring some of the perpetrators. of genocide. Kagame’s RPF opposed the French mission.
How did France and Rwanda get along after the conflict?
Bilateral relations plunged after the genocide, with Rwandan leaders and elsewhere in Africa being exasperated by France’s role. Kagame moved his country – whose official language had been French since Belgian rule – away from France and brought it closer to the United States, China and the Middle East. Kagame also severed ties with France at one point.
In 2009, Rwanda also joined the Commonwealth of Nations, despite the lack of historic relations with the United Kingdom. Interestingly, even though Kagame praised Macron’s remarks on Thursday, he did so in English, not French.
In 2010, French conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy became the first head of state to visit Rwanda since the genocide, but relations continued to deteriorate despite Sarkozy admitting to “serious mistakes” and a “form of blindness” from the French government during the bloody war. turmoil.
What has changed under Macron?
Macron has presented himself as part of a new generation that is ready to revisit the painful parts of France’s legacy as a colonial power in Africa and later support ruthless dictators in the postcolonial era.
During his election campaign in 2017, Macron described the French colonization of Algeria as a “crime against humanity” and the country’s actions “truly barbaric”. In March of this year, Macron admitted that French soldiers tortured and killed Algerian lawyer and freedom fighter Ali Boumendjel, whose death in 1957 had been equated to suicide.
To counter allegations of paternalism in French-speaking Africa, Macron has also sought to engage with the English-speaking countries of the continent. Indeed, even during his current visit to Africa, Macron will be visiting English-speaking South Africa immediately after Rwanda.
So what led to the thaw in Franco-Rwandan relations?
In March and April of this year, two reports were published on France’s role in the conflict. The first report, which was commissioned by Macron, gave a scathing account of French actions during the genocide, accusing the then French government of being “blind” to the preparations of the Hutu militia, and said the power European Union was “serious and overwhelming”. ”Responsibility, according to France24. The report, however, found no evidence of France’s complicity in the killings.
The Macron government accepted the report’s conclusions, marking a game-changer in Franco-Rwandan relations. Kagame visited France last week and said the report allows the two countries to have “good relations”. Ahead of Macron’s reciprocal visit to Rwanda this week, the two sides spoke of a “normalization” of relations.
What were the reactions to Macron’s admission?
While Macron spoke of “forgiveness”, some were dismayed that France did not present a clear apology like Belgium, whose Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt publicly apologized in 2000 for not offering not have prevented the genocide, or the United Nations, whose Secretary General Kofi Annan did the same in 1999.
Yet Rwandan President Kagame praised Macron’s remarks, saying: “His words were something more precious than an apology. They were the truth ”.
Macron’s stopping before giving a full apology is interpreted as an attempt not to anger conservatives at home in France, who see French actions in Africa over the years as a relatively benign influence. There is less than a year to go until the 2021 presidential race, when Macron is set to face far-right Marine Le Pen, who was also his opponent in the last election.
The French president will face a much more formidable challenge, however, as he walks a tightrope in March next year, barely a month before the polls, when Algeria, a popular former colony, celebrates 60 years of independence. . In January of this year, Macron said there would be “no repentance or apologies” but “symbolic acts”, but many expect things to heat up on the polarizing topic.