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Can France and Rwanda ever reconcile over role in genocide?

© Photo: AFP

Video by Marc PERELMAN

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2014-04-06

President Paul Kagame has infuriated French leaders by repeating old accusations that France participated in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, suggesting neither country is ready to find a middle ground on this painful chapter of history.

France’s foreign ministry reacted on Friday by saying that Kagame’s accusations went against reconciliation efforts between the two countries, and announced that Justice Minister Christiane Taubira would not travel to Rwanda for commemorations marking the 20th anniversary of the mass killings, as previously planned.

Kagame told French magazine "Jeune Afrique" this week that Belgium and France had played a direct role “in the political preparation of the genocide”, and said French soldiers had been both accomplices and “actors” in the bloody tragedy.

“It is very surprising that Kagame has gone back to making these accusations, and in such a vivid way, just before the commemorations,” says FRANCE 24’s special correspondent Marc Perelman, who interviewed the Rwandan president this week. “Much work had been done to repair diplomatic ties.

“[Kagame] made these same accusations in the past when relations were at their worst, but in recent years he had been very careful about not repeating them, even if they are probably what he’s been thinking all along."

France has long denied that it played any part in organising the 100-day long spree of massacres that killed around 800,000 people, mainly minority Tutsis, insisting that French forces moved to protect civilians and probably saved thousands of other Rwandans from the slaughter.

Alain Juppé, France’s foreign minister at the time of the genocide, urged French President François Hollande on Friday to take further action against Kagame in order to “defend the honour of France, its army and its diplomats". Juppé said there was an interest in maintaining good ties with Kigali but not “at any price”.

Authorities in Rwanda were slow to respond to the sudden chill in diplomatic ties, but Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said on Sunday that France had to accept the “difficult truth” that it was associated with the genocide, and said Paris’s decision to shun commemorations was an “overreaction”.

Moving backwards

According to FRANCE 24’s Perelman, Kagame probably made a fateful miscalculation, not expecting his words to produce an immediate backlash from the French government.

"Rwandan officials were clearly not expecting the situation to take this turn,” Perelman, who spent hours trying to get an official reaction in Kigali, said. “It was a sign that they were probably embarrassed and struggling to figure out what to say.”

Opposing accounts of the genocide led to a complete freeze in relations between Paris and Kigali between 2006 and 2009.

Kagame’s swipe at France was all the more unexpected at a time when the country has tried to bring a measure of justice for the victims of the genocide. Last month a Paris court sentenced Pascal Simbikangwa, a former Rwandan army captain, to 25 years in prison for his role in the killings.

Only last week, Kagame attended the two-day EU-Africa summit in Brussels, where he met Hollande and posed for a handshake photo with the French President.

“He talked to me about having a good meeting with President François Hollande,” Perelman said of his interview with Kagame on Friday. “During the interview he told me ‘It’s not up to me, but history’ to decide what role France played in the genocide.”

Threat of further isolation

Whether Kagame’s accusation was a slip-up or a provocation, it threatens to further isolate him from the West. World powers are increasingly reluctant to offer the Tutsi leader the latitude he once enjoyed.

Observers say that, feeling guilty for not having intervened to stop the 1994 massacre, the United States and other European countries long ignored accusations that Kagame was snuffing out voices of dissent in his country and meddling in armed conflicts in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.

However, starting in 2012, a handful of European countries – including Germany – cut funding to Kigali following a scathing UN report on the country’s support of the M23 Tutsi rebel group in DR Congo. Since then the US has also scaled back some of its funding.

“Rwanda has been in trouble with Western donors over its alleged meddling in DR Congo,” Perelman noted, insisting the new clash with Paris bodes poorly for the divisive leader, even if France is not a huge international donor.

While he did not offer a full apology, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy acknowledged in 2010 that France had been “blind” and that it committed a “grave error” when it forged ties with the extremist Hutu regime that later perpetrated the genocide.

That confession by France no longer seems to satisfy leaders in Rwanda. On Sunday Foreign Minister Mushikiwabo said it was “impossible for our two countries to move forward if the condition is that Rwanda has to forget its history in order to get along with France”.

However, France’s conspicuous absence from this year’s genocide commemorations in Kigali signals it is unwilling to accept any further blame for the atrocities in the former Belgian colony.

Date created : 2014-04-06

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