Diplomacy

Why Macron stopped short of apologising to Rwanda for the 1994 genocide

French President Emmanuel Macron signs a memorial book after laying a wreath on a mass grave containing the remains of the 1994 Rwandan genocide victims at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center, 27 May 2021.
French President Emmanuel Macron signs a memorial book after laying a wreath on a mass grave containing the remains of the 1994 Rwandan genocide victims at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center, 27 May 2021. © Jean Bizimana/Reuters

When French President Emmanuel Macron stood at the podium at the Kigali Genocide memorial on Thursday, there was a lot of speculation. Would he apologise for France’s role in the Rwandan genocide? The fact that he asked for forgiveness rather than offering an official apology has more to do with domestic politics than France’s relationship with Rwanda.

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“Apology is not the right term,” said Macron at a press conference in Kigali on Thursday, after delivering a speech at the city’s Genocide Memorial Centre asking for forgiveness from the victims and survivors of the 1994 genocide, which left some 800,000 Rwandans dead.

“Only those who crossed the night can maybe forgive; give us the gift of forgiving us,” he said, having recognised France’s responsibility in failing to anticipate the genocide, and not reacting fast enough when it started.

This recognition is as far as Macron could go, says journalist David Severnay, the co-author of a book examining France’s role in the genocide.

“He is following the same policy that French leaders have supported in the past" he told RFI.

Macron's words were in line with those of former president Nicolas Sarkozy when he visited Rwanda in 2010.

“Sarkozy talked about errors, and political faults,” said Severnay. “Macron couldn't really go any further. He doesn't want to fall foul of a part of French public opinion.”

French public opinion

Macron is facing re-election next year. Because he positions himself as neither on the right, nor the left he cannot afford to alienate those on the right who believe France should not have to apologise for past wrongs.

Another group he does not want to upset is the military.

“Macron has made a point not to question the role of the French military in Rwanda,” Severnay added.

Many questions about France’s involvement in Rwanda centre around its military support of the Hutu-led Rwandan government during the civil war preceding the genocide, which targeted the country's Tutsi population.

But Macron cannot afford to lose even more support from the military. His policies towards Islamism have already raised the ire of some former generals and serving soldiers with links to the hard right who recently wrote open letters warning of an impending civil war.

Turning over a new leaf

Rwandan president Paul Kagame said Macron’s speech on Thursday was “more powerful than an apology”, that it was time to forgive, and to renew the relationship between the two countries.

"This visit is about the future not the past ... I want to believe today that this rapprochement is irreversible," Kagame said at a joint press conference.

Beyond words, what will make the most impact will be actions. In his speech Macron talked about supporting researchers and historians working on finding out the truth about what happened in 1994.

He also said that those suspected of complicity in the genocide should face legal action.

Severnay says there are about 100 people in France who should face trial, about 30 of them currently under investigation, but with inadequate resources.

“There aren't enough means being deployed on this. Only two investigators work on Rwandan subjects,” he said. “We’ll see if Macron is coherent and provides the investigators and the magistrates, who have to rule on these cases, with the necessary means to do the job.”

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