- France and Rwanda will hold fast to their largely irreconcilable narratives regarding the run-up to and perpetration of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
- Both countries will continue to maintain a dialogue and coordinate efforts among their allies on areas of mutual interest.
- Even so, relations between France and Rwanda will remain strained for years to come.
Relations between France and Rwanda have been acrimonious since the Rwandan genocide nearly a quarter century ago. It came as a surprise, then, when French President Emmanuel Macron and Rwandan President Paul Kagame met Sept. 18 on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York. The leaders used the opportunity to size each other up and to explore areas of agreement. But the 1994 genocide — for which each side blames the other — will continue to haunt the relationship between France and Rwanda for many years to come. Despite their mutual interests, the countries can’t seem to get over a brutal moment in their shared history.
Sins of the Past
The details of France’s and Rwanda’s actions before, during and after the genocide are still the subject of heated debate more than two decades on. Three days before Macron and Kagame met, France’s Constitutional Council denied a request from a researcher and activist to open former French President Francois Mitterrand’s archives on the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which happened during his tenure. Critics in France and Rwanda denounced the decision as a politically motivated attempt to hide France’s role in the genocide. And so, much of the genocide remains shrouded in mystery.
What is well-established, however, is that France considered the government of President Juvenal Habyarimana, Rwanda’s leader in the run-up to the genocide, a close ally. The relationship, which included a defense cooperation agreement from 1975, tied into France’s strategic imperatives across its former colonial area. Though Rwanda had been a Belgian colony, French policymakers considered the country — a “Francophone territory” — to be rightfully part of France’s sphere of influence. This view formed the backbone of Mitterrand’s approach to the growing crisis in the region in the early 1990s.
At the time, the armed wing of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a Tutsi political party, had begun launching offensives against the Habyarimana administration, with support from Uganda. The RPF’s ties to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni dated back decades. When Rwanda’s Hutu majority rebelled against the country’s Tutsi rulers in the late 1950s and early 1960s, thousands of Tutsis fled to Uganda, where many joined Museveni’s National Resistance Army. Some displaced Tutsis rose to hold senior positions in the force; Kagame, for example, became its director of military intelligence. (He previously had trained at the U.S. Army College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, as well.) As Museveni strengthened his grip over Uganda, he and the legions of Tutsi soldiers who had helped him gain power began turning their attention toward Rwanda.
France, meanwhile, saw Uganda’s growing strength and its support for the RPF as evidence that the United States and the United Kingdom were backing it. The end of the Cold War, after all, had led the United States to re-examine its relationship with Mobutu Sese Seko’s increasingly sclerotic Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). France had been wary of encroachment from rival powers on the African continent — whether real or imagined — since British troops halted a French colonial expedition moving toward Sudan in 1898, thereby stopping France’s eastward expansion across Africa. The fear weighed heavily on French defense policymakers and on Mitterrand, who in a 1994 interview with Le Figaro accused the United Kingdom of maintaining a “distrustful and competitive attitude toward France’s foreign policy in Africa.” For France, the United States’ rise as a superpower was merely an extension of the Anglo-Saxon threat to its global influence. Paris interpreted Washington’s alleged support for Museveni and Kagame, who took over command of the RPF in October 1990, as another attempt to impinge on its prized African zone of influence.
In response, France moved to bolster the Habyarimana government and its fledgling military against the RPF, helping to drive the conflict toward a stalemate. International mediation pushed the Rwandan government and RPF to accept a cease-fire and eventually to agree to the 1993 Arusha Accords, along with the establishment of a U.N. mission in Rwanda comprising mostly Belgian soldiers.
Diverging Versions of a Genocide
The stalemate period enabled Kagame’s RPF to refocus its efforts on waging a psychological war against Rwanda’s population, to boost its recruitment and to infiltrate the country. Insecurity, tension and fear gripped Rwanda. Then, during the night of April 6, 1994, a plane carrying Habyarimana, the Burundian president and 10 other passengers, including three French crew members, exploded and crashed while making its final approach to Kigali’s airport. No one aboard the plane survived. Eyewitness reports and assessments of the accident later revealed that surface-to-air missiles had shot down the plane, and speculation swirled over who was behind Habyarimana’s assassination. Some theories suggested Hutu extremists had taken out their own leader to initiate a Tutsi bloodbath. Others pointed the finger at RPF soldiers trying to usher in the next phase of their war. Yet others even blamed the French.
Whatever the case, the incident lit the fuse on a series of events that would haunt the world. Hutu extremists quickly sought revenge for Habyarimana’s death and began the 100-day campaign of violence that became known as the Rwandan genocide. Fear, social pressure and local politics conspired to wreak unbelievable carnage on Rwanda in the span of a few months.
Kagame’s RPF launched another offensive to take over the country, and in time, France’s government pushed the U.N. Security Council to back a French military mission, code-named Operation Turquoise, in southwest Rwanda. Though the mission’s aim was to create a safe zone for Tutsis, it soon became synonymous with duplicity in the minds of many Rwandans and foreign observers alike. French soldiers delivered arms shipments to Rwanda’s fleeing leaders and let the massacres’ Hutu perpetrators go free. The safe zone came to be seen as an area where those accused of committing the genocide could go to find freedom from punishment. The RPF, moreover, claimed the French were more determined to slow its progress toward Kigali than to protect Rwandan civilians. As the violence ended and the world became more aware of the brutality in Rwanda, the RPF began to assert its control over the country. The finger-pointing between Paris and Kigali escalated, and both sides constructed diverging official narratives of the genocide and its origins.
Stuck in Neutral
Relations between France and Rwanda have been tense ever since. Even after a new Tutsi-dominated government took power in Kigali, and even as France tried to redefine its relationships with other African states, the two countries remained at odds. France, in fact, still doesn’t have an ambassador in Rwanda. And anytime Paris and Kigali have tried to revive their ties, new revelations, investigations and accusations about what each side did in 1994 have gotten in the way, derailing their attempts to move forward.
The situation likely will continue in the years ahead. Senegal’s president has invited Kagame to attend the Dakar International Forum on Peace and Security in Africa in mid-November, an event the Senegalese government is hosting with help from the French Ministry of Defense. But Kagame’s attendance wouldn’t necessarily herald a breakthrough for France and Rwanda. The Rwandan president previously has attended events co-hosted by France and African states — including the 27th France-Africa summit in Bamako, Mali, this year — and his participation has done little to change things between Kigali and Paris.
Still, the two share several interests in common. During their recent meeting at the U.N. General Assembly, Kagame and Macron reportedly discussed various topics, including the African Union, regional and continental security, climate change and renewable energy. Given the numerous areas in which France and Rwanda can maintain a dialogue and coordinate efforts among their allies, the two countries have room to improve their relationship, if only slightly. It may take a new generation of French and Rwandan leaders to bury the hatchet, and even then, the sins of the past — both real and perceived — will prevent the countries from fully reconciling their differences.