Kagame the winner as Macron gives genocide speech in Rwanda

French president says his country bears a responsibility for hundreds of thousands of deaths, but was not complicit

President Emmanuel Macron has asked for “the gift of forgiveness” from the people of Rwanda after admitting for the first time that France bears a “terrible responsibility” for the deaths of hundreds of thousands in the 1994 genocide.

The French premier’s visit to the east African country, as well as his words of contrition, will be seen as a major diplomatic success for Rwanda’s veteran ruler, Paul Kagame, now in his 27th year in power.

Speaking at the Genocide Memorial in Kigali, the capital, Macron said that France had not been complicit in the genocide but had made errors of judgment that had appalling consequences.

“By engaging … in a conflict in which it had no prior experience, France failed to heed the warnings and overestimated its ability to stop something that was already under way,” Macron said. “Only those who have passed through the darkness can perhaps forgive, make us the gift forgiveness.”

Kigali has long accused France of complicity in the killing of about 800,000 mostly Tutsi Rwandans.

French troops led a military-humanitarian intervention called Operation Turquoise launched by Paris under a UN mandate between June and August 1994, but critics have long said it was intended to support the Hutu government responsible for the genocide, a claim a recent official French report by a team of historians and archivists confirms.

“France did not understand that, in its efforts to prevent a regional conflict or a civil war, it was in fact standing by a genocidal regime. By ignoring the warnings of the most lucid observers, France assumed a terrible responsibility in a chain of events that resulted in the worst possible outcome, even though that was exactly what [France] hoped to avoid,” Macron said.

The visit is the first by a French leader since 2010 and aims at moving on from three decades of diplomatic tensions over France’s role in the genocide. Paris has made a major strategic push for influence and commercial success in Africa in recent years, and Kagame is an influential actor on the continent.

The Rwandan president described Macron’s words as “something more valuable than an apology – they were the truth.”

“Politically and morally, this was an act of tremendous courage … The truth heals … the weight of responsibility has been put back where it belongs: with those who made the decisions. Whether or not there are trials, justice is also rendered by the court of history,” Kagame said.

Analysts said the visit would help deflect criticism of repression of opposition voices in Rwanda and other human rights abuses.

“It’s an absolute victory for Kagame on so many levels and, even though this is about the role that France played in 1994, it also in many ways absolutely legitimises his government today, and I think that’s where the problem is,” said Stephanie Wolters, an expert at the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg. “We have accumulated knowledge over the last few years … that shows very clearly that this is not a regime that you want to be praising.”

Kagame, who has been in power since the age of 36, when his Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebel army routed the genocidal regime and seized Kigali.

Emmanuel Macron (left) and Paul Kagame pose for the photographers at the presidential palace prior to their talks in Kigali.
Emmanuel Macron (left) and Paul Kagame pose for the photographers at the presidential palace prior to their talks in Kigali. Photograph: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

Now 63, Kagame has won international praise for the stability and economic development he has brought Rwanda, but has also been accused of running an authoritarian, one-party state.

Earlier this week, two of Rwanda’s highest-profile opposition leaders accused Macron of ignoring political repression and rights abuses in their country.

“President Emmanuel Macron does not hesitate publicly to bluntly castigate dictatorial regimes, but keeps silent with regard to the authoritarian rule and human rights abuses by the Rwandan regime,” critics Victoire Ingabire and Bernard Ntaganda said in a statement.

Rwanda severed diplomatic ties with France in 2006 after a French judge ordered arrest warrants against nine Kagame aides accused of links to the shooting down of the Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane on 6 April 1994. The killings began the day after Habyarimana was shot down, and continued until 15 July. Over 100 days, armed militias slaughtered members of the Tutsi ethnic group and some moderate Hutus with a brutality that shocked the international community, although no outside country intervened to stop the killings.

Nicolas Sarkozy, then president of France, travelled to Kigali in 2010. Sarkozy admitted France had committed an “error of judgment” and “serious mistakes” at the time of the genocide but did not apologise. His remarks disappointed Rwanda, and bilateral relations did not improve.

Macron spent less than 24 hours in Rwanda and is due to arrive in South Africa on Friday where, among other issues, he will discuss access to vaccines for African nations with President Cyril Ramaphosa.


Jason Burke Africa correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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