France bears “heavy and overwhelming responsibilities” over the 1994 Rwanda genocide, a report by French historians says, but they found no evidence of French complicity.
The expert commission presented the report to French President Emmanuel Macron. The report said France had been “blind” to genocide preparations. The report found that France’s colonial mind-set had blinded it to the atrocity. The authors, though, cleared France of complicity.
Blinded by its fears of losing influence in Africa and by a colonial view of the continent’s people, France remained close to the “racist, corrupt and violent regime’’ responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and bears “serious and overwhelming” responsibilities, according to a report released Friday.
But the report commissioned in 2019 and put together by 15 historians with unprecedented access to French government archives — cleared France of complicity in the genocide that led to the deaths of 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and contributed to decades of conflicts and instability in Central Africa.
“Is France an accomplice to the genocide of the Tutsi? If by this we mean a willingness to join a genocidal operation, nothing in the archives that were examined demonstrates this,’’ said the report, which was presented to Mr. Macron on Friday afternoon.
But the commission said that France had long been involved with Rwanda’s Hutu-led government even as that government prepared the genocide of the Tutsis, regarding the country’s leadership as a crucial ally in a French sphere of influence in the region.
During just 100 days in 1994, ethnic Hutu extremists killed about 800,000 people as they set out to exterminate Rwanda’s minority Tutsi community, and their political opponents, irrespective of their ethnic origin.
The genocide’s end did not mark the end of the killings – it spilled into Rwanda’s giant neighbour, the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it has led to an estimated five million deaths in a conflict which involved several other countries and which remains unstable to this day.
For decades, France’s actions during the genocide have been the source of intense debate in Africa and in Europe, with critics accusing France of not having done enough to prevent the killings or of having actively supported the Hutu-led government behind the genocide.
The unresolved history has long poisoned relations between France and the government of President Paul Kagame, the Tutsi leader who has controlled Rwanda for nearly a quarter century.
Mr. Macron, who has spoken of his desire to reset France’s relations with a continent where it was a colonial power, is believed to have commissioned the report to try to improve relations with Rwanda.
Though the 992-page report presents fresh information from the French government archives, it is unlikely to resolve the debate over France’s role during the genocide, said Filip Reyntjens, a Belgian expert on the genocide.
“This will not be good enough for one side, and it won’t be good enough for the other side,’’ Mr. Reyntjens said. “So my guess is that this will not settle the issue.’’
According to the report, François Mitterrand, the French president at the time, maintained a “strong, personal and direct relationship’’ with Juvenal Habyarimana, the longtime Hutu president of Rwanda, despite his “racist, corrupt and violent regime.’’
A Hutu elite ruled Rwanda when the genocide took place, in April-June 1994, but they were later ousted by the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) under Paul Kagame, who is now president.
The report blames the then French President, François Mitterrand, for a “failure” of policy towards Rwanda in 1994. The findings are being made public after years of French official secrecy over links to the Hutus who ruled Rwanda.
Mr. Mitterrand and members of his inner circle believed that Mr. Habyarimana and the Hutus were key allies in a French-speaking bloc that also included Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, known then as Zaire.
The French saw Mr. Kagame and other Tutsi leaders — who had spent years in exile in neighboring Anglophone Uganda — as allies in an American push into the region.
“The principal interest of this country for France is that it be francophone,’’ a high-ranking military official wrote in 1990, according to the report, which concluded: “France’s interpretation of the Rwandan situation can be viewed through the prism of defending la Francophonie.’’
French leaders at the time viewed the Hutus and Tutsis through a colonial lens, ascribing to each group stereotypical physical traits and behavior, compounding their misinterpretation of the events that led to the genocide, according to the report.
President Macron appointed the 15-member commission two years ago, giving them access to presidential, diplomatic, military and intelligence archives.
Among the archives are those of Mitterrand, who had close ties to former Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu.
The commission members are not Rwanda specialists – that was a deliberate choice to ensure their neutrality. They include experts on the Holocaust, on the massacres of Armenians in World War I and on international criminal law. They are led by historian Vincent Duclert.
On 22 June 1994 the United Nations authorised the deployment of French forces in south-west Rwanda, in what was called Operation Turquoise.
That mission was controversial: the French humanitarian zone saved some potential victims from the genocidal killers, but later there were accusations that the French help had come too late and that some killers had managed to hide in the zone.
In 2015, then-President François Hollande announced that the Rwanda archives would be declassified but two years later, after a researcher sought permission to study them, France’s Constitutional Council ruled that they should remain secret.
In one of the report’s most damning conclusions, its authors wrote, “The failure of France in Rwanda, the causes of which are not all its own, can be likened in this respect to a final imperial defeat, all the more significant because it was neither expressed nor acknowledged.’’
Rwanda, which has long accused France of complicity, said it welcomed the report. “The Government of Rwanda welcomes the report of the Duclert Commission, which represents an important step toward a common understanding of France’s role in the Genocide against the Tutsi,” a statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation reads.
The Rwandan government says it would soon release its own report, “the conclusions of which will complement and enrich those of the Duclert Commission”.
“An investigative report commissioned by the Government of Rwanda in 2017 will be released in the coming weeks, the conclusions of which will complement and enrich those of the Duclert Commission,” the Rwanda government statement said..
How genocide happened
A group of Tutsi exiles there formed a rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which invaded Rwanda in 1990 and fighting continued until a 1993 peace deal was agreed.
On the night of 6 April 1994 a plane carrying then President Juvenal Habyarimana, and his Burundian counterpart Cyprien Ntaryamira – both Hutus – was shot down, killing everyone on board.
Hutu extremists blamed the RPF and immediately started a well-organised campaign of slaughter. The RPF said the plane had been shot down by Hutus to provide an excuse for the genocide.
With meticulous organisation. Lists of government opponents were handed out to militias who went and killed them, along with all of their families. Neighbours killed neighbours and some husbands even killed their Tutsi wives, saying they themselves would be killed if they refused.
At the time, ID cards had people’s ethnic group on them, so militias set up roadblocks where Tutsis were slaughtered, often with machetes which most Rwandans kept around the house. Thousands of Tutsi women were taken away and kept as sex slaves.
The Hutu extremists set up radio stations and newspapers which broadcast hate propaganda, urging people to “weed out the cockroaches” – code for “kill the Tutsis”. The names of those to be murdered were read out on radio. Even priests and nuns have been convicted of killing people, including some who sought shelter in churches.
By the end of the 100-day killing spree, around 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus had been killed.
The UN and Belgium had forces in Rwanda but the UN mission was not given a mandate to stop the killing due to the US’s reluctance to get involved in another African conflict.
The Belgians and most UN peacekeepers pulled out after 10 Belgian soldiers were killed. The French, who were allies of the Hutu government, sent a force to set up a supposedly safe zone but were accused of not doing enough to stop the slaughter in that area.
The well-organised RPF, backed by Uganda’s army, gradually seized more territory, until 4 July, when its forces marched into the capital, Kigali, led by Paul Kagame, who is now Rwanda’s president.
Some two million Hutus, including many of the militias who carried out the genocide, fled to Rwanda’s enormous neighbour, DR Congo, then called Zaire, fearing reprisal attacks.