Analysis: France - Rwanda

Twenty years after genocide France and Rwanda give different versions of history

Hutu refugees greet French soldiers arriving in a camp outside Butare on this 3 July 1994
Hutu refugees greet French soldiers arriving in a camp outside Butare on this 3 July 1994 AFP/Hocine Zaourar

Paul Kagame's renewed accusations led Paris to boycott Monday’s genocide commemoration ceremony in Kigali, but also sparked considerable soul-searching over the allegations in the French media.


Twenty years after 800,000 Tutsis and moderate hutus were killed in Rwanda, the country’s president, Paul Kagame, has again declared publicly that France played a “direct role in the preparation of the genocide”.

His accusations led Paris to boycott Monday’s genocide commemoration ceremony in Kigali, but also sparked considerable soul-searching over the allegations in the French media.

What is the French line on the allegations?

In 1994 Rwanda was run by a Hutu government, France was an ally, and the extent of French government involvement before and during the genocide, is disputed.

Kagame accuses Paris of training the militias who perpetrated massacres and continuing to deliver weapons and equipment to the Hutus even after they had begun the slaughter of Tutsis in April 1994.

Although both these accusations were recently confirmed again by former French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner on RFI, no formal proof exists of the direct implication of French soldiers in the killings.

The 1998 French parliamentary enquiry set up to try to establish the truth about the French role declared that “France was in no way implicated in the genocide against the Tutsis.”

Pierre Brana and Bernard Cazeneuve, the two rapporteurs for this enquiry (which had limited powers), nevertheless admitted the French authorities made “serious errors of judgement”.

What were these errors?

According to the parliamentary enquiry:

The first serious strategic mistake was to give military support to the regime of President Juvenal Habyarimana, which had links with the extremist movement Hutu Power.
Paris, said the enquiry, underestimated the “authoritarian, ethnic and racist character” of the regime which it so strongly supported.

The second mistake was to present the French intervention in 1994 as an attempt to help a country which had been attacked by an outside aggressor. In reality, the Rwandan Patriotic Front Tutsi rebels who were retaliating against the Rwandan government forces were descendants of Rwandan Tutsis who had fled to Uganda to escape persecution by Hutus in the 1950s.

Dossier: Rwanda remembers genocide 20 years later

Finally, the report backs the idea that French military aid to the Habyarimana regime bordered on direct engagement, since it included giving the Rwandan government forces operational advice on all levels.

Why was France such a strong ally of the Hutu regime?

François Mitterrand was president of France from 1981 until 1995 and was therefore responsible for France’s policy before and during the Rwandan genocide.

He ordered Operation Noroît, between 1990 and 1993, to come to the aid of Rwanda’s Hutu government, which was being threatened by the tutsi rebel RPF in Uganda, led then by Kagame.

Rwanda was one of the African countries which France considered to be in the Francophone zone of influence and Mitterrand was persuaded by a theory, touted by some, that there was a plot afoot. Once Habyarimana was dead, a huge east African “Tutsi land” including Uganda, Kivu (in what is now DRC), Rwanda and Burundi would be created, and instead of dealing with France, it would look in a more Anglo-American direction.

Recent interpretations of discussions at the time also suggest that President Mitterrand was overly concerned with ties to the Rwandan government because of pressure from his son, Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, who ran the Africa Unit at the Elysée between 1986 and 1992 and was a close friend of the Rwandan president’s son Jean-Pierre Habyarimana.

Mitterrand’s close advisors maintain his policy at the time was guided by two concerns.
He did not want the toppling of the Rwandan government, with which France had signed military co operation accords and he hoped to assist Rwanda on the path towards a democracy. The Arusha agreement signed in August 1993 provided for a guarantee of right of return for Rwandan tutsi refugees and power sharing in Kigali between representatives of the majority hutu as well as minority tutsi and twa peoples. Operation Noroît was ended on the signing of this agreement and a United Nations Force replaced the French forces with the mission of implementing the agreement.

Why is Paul Kagame so critical of Operation Turquoise where French troops went to Rwanda at the end of June 1994 towards the end of the genocide?

Operation Turquoise, under a UN mandate, probably saved about 15,000 lives. The Prime Minister of the time, Edouard Balladur is indignant about Kagame’s criticism. “France was the only country in the world which took the initiative of organising a humanitarian operation to prevent a generalised massacre”, he said again recently in response to Kagame.

It is true that apart from a few African contingents only France sent troops but the genocide began on 07 April 1994 and ended in July 1994 when Kagame’s Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front took Kigali, so by the time French troops arrived in June, most of the killing was over.

Also by that time, Kagame’s Tutsi RPF was beginning to overcome the government forces and the arrival of soldiers from France, an ally of the Hutu regime, was seen as an attempt to help the Hutus out, especially as some of the French soldiers had already fought in Operation Noroît.

The RPF also claims that France set up a humanitarian safety zone on the border with what was then Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), with the specific aim of helping Hutu perpetrators of genocide to escape.

It is a fact that as early as 8 April, France implemented Operation Amaryllis, swiftly repatriating French citizens, non-Rwandans and Juvenal Habyarimana’s entourage, while the Tutsi employees at the embassy and the French cultural centre were left to fend for themselves.

Another reason why Operation Turquoise is criticised is for its action in Bisesero in western Rwanda where soldiers arrived three days late to come to the aid of a thousand Tutsis, who were among the last who had not yet been killed, and so they died.

Patrick de Saint-Exupéry, a journalist with Le Figaro at the time, says the soldiers received orders from their superiors to delay their arrival at Bisesero.

Does the recent exchange between Rwanda and France mean an end to recent moves towards reconciliation made by former French president Nicolas Sarkozy?

In 2010 Nicolas Sarkozy became the first French president to visit Rwanda since 1994.

He promised to make sure suspected perpetrators of genocide now residing in France will face justice.

Twenty such cases are currently in progress in France, including a case against Habyarimana’s widow, Agathe, who openly expounded Hutu supremacy theories.

President François Hollande continued Sarkozy’s policy of moving towards reconciliation and French and Rwandan soldiers have co operated successfully in Mali and Central African Republic.

But many feel that France and Rwanda cannot normalise relations until two things happen:
France must make public its archives covering the events, and France must hold a proper enquiry into its role, with greater powers for those conducting the enquiry to obtain answers.

In a powerful article on the widely-read news website Mediapart, journalist Edwy Plenel says that rather than boycotting commemoration ceremonies in response to Kagame’s accusations, France should face up to its role and ask for Rwanda’s pardon, as Belgium has done.


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