Twenty-seven years ago last week, on 6 April 1994, a plane carrying the Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana and his Burundian counterpart was shot down over Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. The assassination was the trigger for the Rwandan genocide, during which around 800,000 people, mostly of the minority Tutsi ethnic group, were massacred by Hutu génocidaires.
The genocide, which took place over about 100 days, was one of the worst episodes of mass violence in the late 20th century. No external power – neither former colonial power Belgium, nor the US or UN – intervened to stop the killing until Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) forces led by Paul Kagame, today the country’s president, eventually forced the génocidaire authorities out of the country, mostly to neighbouring Zaire. Most controversial of all, however, has been the role played by France under then-president François Mitterrand.
France has long been suspected of having offered support to those authorities as it sought to entrench its influence over Francophone Africa – the relationship disparagingly termed Françafrique by the activist François-Xavier Verschave. In the first days of violence, France’s military exfiltrated foreign nationals but not their Tutsi relatives, sometimes separating mixed couples and leaving Tutsis behind to face certain death, according to the historian Gérard Prunier. Later, the French army’s Operation Turquoise, supposedly an intervention that would help put an end to the violence France’s foreign minister Alain Juppé had already characterised as “a genocide”, would be accused of protecting the perpetrators of the violence as they fled the RPF advance.
Jacques Bihozagara, a former ambassador to Paris, said in 2006: “Operation Turquoise was aimed only at protecting genocide perpetrators, because the genocide continued even within the Turquoise zone.”
A commission established by President Emmanuel Macron in 2019, and chaired by the historian Vincent Duclert, presented a lengthy report this March about the role of France during the genocide.
The commission had been criticised for excluding some of the researchers most likely to be critical of France, but, although it exonerated Mitterrand’s government of direct complicity in the violence, its report did find that France bore “overwhelming responsibilities” for inaction during the genocide. France’s policy was driven by colonial-era stereotypes and a desire to maintain its sphere of influence in French-speaking Africa, the report concluded.
Macron has since said he will open the archives on France’s role during the genocide, which served as sources for the commission’s report. Activists have long called for this to happen and the move has been welcomed by Kagame, who has claimed that “certain French officials” have led a “decades-long effort… to cover up their responsibilities”. Historians will now have freer access to documents shedding light on Mitterrand’s personal attitudes, including his alleged closeness to Habyarimana and binary view of Hutus as allies and so-called “Ugando-Tutsis” as enemies.
The opening of the archives is not just a matter of academic interest. Relations between Rwanda and France have been poisoned for decades because of the latter’s alleged unwillingness to face up to its role during the genocide.
The question of France’s extensive influence in Africa also remains live, whether through the country’s controversial military intervention in the Sahel or the West and Central CFA franc, the currencies pegged to the euro used by 14 mostly former French colonies. (In 2019, plans to replace the West African franc CFA with a new currency, the Eco – which will be more independent of France – were announced by Macron and the president of Ivory Coast, Alassane Ouattara.)
The decision to open the archives also matters politically, with presidential elections in France now one year away. Macron’s commitment to addressing some of the most painful episodes in French history, from the Algerian War to the Rwandan genocide, may help to endear him to the left flank of his electoral coalition, the anthropologist Jean-Loup Amselle recently wrote.
In the same way as one of the defining legacies of Jacques Chirac’s presidency was his recognition of the responsibility of the French state in the Holocaust, Macron’s term could be marked by a brave, though still partial, reckoning with his country’s recent past.
[See also: “Inexcusable”: How France’s links to the Rwandan genocide could return to trouble Macron]