Official French reaction to the Rwandan accusation that French leaders, diplomats, and soldiers were complicit in the epic 1994 genocide in Rwanda was muted and curt.
"Unacceptable," said both former French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé, and a diplomatic spokesman here during a sleepy week when most of Paris has decamped for vacation. Yet some French nongovernmental organizations, media, and intellectuals treated accusations that France aided and abetted Hutu government forces in the 100-day killing spree, which left more than 800,000 dead, as at least a subject for further inquiry.
"There is something not clear in France's responsibility in Rwanda," argued a column in the Paris-based daily, Libération, though it noted that the report, by a Rwandan presidential commission, does not carry the significance of a body like the United Nations' Rwanda war crimes tribunal – set up at the same time as the tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
Le Monde hit the subject slightly harder in a headline reading, "Rwanda's genocide: a duty to tell the truth."
Rwandan president Paul Kagame, a Tutsi, launched an inquiry that led to a 500-page document naming 33 senior French officials – including former President François Mitterrand and former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin – in 2006, immediately after a famous French antiterrorism judge, Jean-Louis Bruguiere, in 2006 said Mr. Kagame had masterminded the downing of an aircraft carrying former Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu.
The downed plane question is extremely sensitive in Rwanda – "something like a 9/11 event in the US," says Thomas Cargill, a specialist at Chatham House, a think tank in London – since it is regarded as the trigger for bloodshed between Hutus and Tutsis.
Kagame denies involvement, but he has treated the nonbinding indictment as an insult – given widespread local views that French UN peacekeepers favored the Hutu government and did little to stop the killing.
Yet the report Kagame initiated goes further.
Along with charging that French forces trained Hutu military squads and aided in forcing hundreds of thousands of Tutsis out of their homes, it says that French support "was of a political, military, diplomatic, and logistical nature."
A French parliamentary investigation in 1998 found that "errors of judgment …were made," but denied that French peacekeepers helped the Hutu militants.
Kagame's justice minister called for the 33 French officials to be brought to justice by "competent authorities," without spelling out what that meant.
Paris writer and intellectual Jean Hatzfeld argues on the website of the French weekly news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur that French soldiers may have witnessed the slaughter, but were not any more culpable than they were in Bosnia, where they also served as peacekeepers during the Balkan wars. "The situation [in Rwanda] was very confusing. As in Bosnia ... France was on the ground during the massacre." He went on to say, "We can share responsibility without being guilty."
Battle to shape world opinion
Mr. Cargill, at Chatham House, argues that Rwanda and France are trying to have their own version of the horrific event accepted as truth.
"In France, Belgium, and among the Rwandan Hutu diaspora, there's a sizable group that feel angry at what they perceive as international sympathy for the Kagame government," says Cargill. "Rwanda and France should cooperate, but I don't see that happening quickly."
The Paris NGO Survie, which has tracked the Rwanda issue since 1992, asserts that France was unquestionably involved. "France was complicit with a regime that committed a genocide, and knew ahead of time what would happen," says Sharon Courtoux of Survie. "It's a nasty business, and most countries don't like to admit such things."