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19 June 2020updated 28 Jul 2021 12:13pm

“Inexcusable”: How France’s links to the Rwandan genocide could return to trouble Macron

A court order to unseal François Mitterand's archive on Rwanda could force a reappraisal of the country's recent history.

By Ido Vock

State archives concerning France’s role during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide will be opened for the first time, following a lengthy legal battle. 

Their contents could prompt President Emmanuel Macron to go further than any other French president in taking responsibility for one of the most shameful and least well known episodes in recent French history.

In the second week of June, France’s highest court, the Conseil d’État, ordered the government to grant a historian access to archival documents which may contain unpalatable truths about the extent of the country’s ties with the Rwandan génocidaires.

Former president François Mitterand’s government has long been suspected of collusion with the genocidal government. Former Rwandan foreign minister Olivier Nduhungirehe has insisted that Opération Turquoise, the French military intervention into Rwanda during the period, offered military protection to perpetrators of the genocide.

The researcher who was granted access to the archives, François Graner, has said they may reveal the details about Mitterrand’s close relationship with the Hutu supremacist president Juvénal Habyarimana and his successor, interim president Théodore Sindikubwabo.

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The extent of the military and diplomatic ties between France and Habyarimana’s government remain largely unknown. 

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Linda Melvern, the author of Intent to Deceive, about denial of the Rwandan Genocide, told the New Statesman: “Why was France allies with this odious regime that operated an apartheid system against a minority for so many years? It was part of the French sphere in Africa. Even so, to have known what was known beforehand about the planning, and not to have issued warnings, and then to have abetted the perpetrators, is inexcusable.

“A lot of what France did [during the genocide] is unbelievable. That a European country could have behaved in such a way – and covered it up for so long – is truly incredible. There are some very important aspects to this that we still don’t know about.”

France has fought to protect the confidentiality of the documents for years, a move which has fuelled conspiracy theories, says Melvern. “France refusing to open its archives has created a vacuum of information that denial can fill.”

The court ruling, which the state has three months to implement, comes a year after President Emmanuel Macron announced the creation of a commission to investigate France’s role in the Rwandan Genocide. Melvern said the commission excludes some prominent researchers likely to be most critical of France.

Furthermore, France has an ignoble record of facing up to the more unsavoury periods of its recent past. Former president Jacques Chirac’s defining legacy was finally admitting responsibility for the French state’s complicity in the Holocaust – 50 years after the end of WWII.

In 2017, then-presidential candidate Macron called French colonialism in Algeria “a crime against humanity”, with even that relatively dispassionate formulation provoking widespread condemnation across the political spectrum.

Yet Macron’s position as a political outsider and reformist, unattached to traditional party loyalties, has also allowed him to address troubling aspects of France’s past, from wanting to return art looted during the colonial period to phasing out the West African Franc CFA.

Former presidents have come close to apologising for France’s role in the Rwandan Genocide. Ten years ago, then-president Nicolas Sarkozy issued a carefully worded speech acknowledging that his country and the international community had suffered from “a kind of blindness” during the killings. Macron has already reset several aspects of his country’s relations with African states. These archives may push him to go further than his predecessors.