Calls for France to rethink its Africa role

A Rwandan report this week charged Paris with complicity in the 1994 genocide.

Riccardo Gangale/AP
Bonhomie: The report breaks a spell of warmer ties between Rwanda and France. In January, President Paul Kagame (r.) hosted French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner (l.) in Kigali.
Rich Clabaugh–STAFF

A bombshell of a report by Rwanda this week implicating high-ranking French officials in the arming and training of Hutu forces that committed genocide in Rwanda – could have been issued last November. President Paul Kagame sat on the 500-page study, approved by the Rwandan Senate, for months.

It was a time of some bonhomie with France. President Nicolas Sarkozy and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, much liked in Kigali, were working on a new rapprochement policy – after Rwanda broke all ties with France in 2006 over a French judge's indictment of Mr. Kagame for allegedly ordering an assassination in 1994.

Kagame, a Tutsi, appears to have lost patience with France. He had hoped that the 2006 indictment would be renounced and that high-level Hutus still living in France would be deported to Rwanda to face genocide charges.

Still, what is likely the last major report on the 1994 Rwandan genocide that killed more than 800,000, leaves France with an embarrassing problem – one cutting to the heart of its own political elite, to a network of French unofficial "parallel structures" of commerce and intelligence in Africa, and to how a major power will deal with thorny questions of justice about its behavior in the postcolonial world.

"The French know this report is dynamite and wanted to keep it from seeing the light of day," says Andrew Wallis, author of "Silent Accomplice," a recounting of alleged French backing of the Hutu government in Rwanda in the early 1990s. "This creates a new chapter and ends an old one. The question is, where do the two sides go now? The French tried in every way to unseat Kagame, but now recognize he is here to stay. But you aren't going to get an apology from the French.... The Hutus were armed and trained by a foreign power that walked away and said 'I never did it.' "

The details in the Rwandan document – its naming of French political and military officials, its recounting of French weapons sales, French training, incidents, times, dates, and places of specific crimes – have so far been treated with scorn, and a blanket denial in Paris.

French defense minister Hervé Morin told Radio France Internationale Thursday that French investigators in 1998 found French soldiers in Rwanda were "beyond reproach" and said they saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

Whether Kagame, whose profile in Africa has been rising, will attempt to push a prosecution at a time when the West has been touting the arrest of Balkan leaders accused of war crimes, as well as an International Criminal Court indictment of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, is unknown.

Tom Cargill, Africa expert with the London think tank Chatham House, told Reuters, "I think it all points to a profound disturbance in international relations caused by the emergence of an international legal system.... The very idea that there might be a legal process ... quite separate from politics is causing many people in many countries to rethink how they approach international relations."

Paris and Kigali have spent years disputing France's role in the 100-day killing spree that became the last full-scale genocide of the 20th century. Some diplomatic sources in Paris say the Kagame report, produced by the Munyo Commission, is an effort at distracting attention from Tutsi crimes that took place after 800,000 Hutu moderates and Tutsis were slaughtered.

Yet the respected French daily Le Monde this week said the evidence presented in the Rwandan study means the issue can no longer be ignored. It argued that passionate back-and-forth charges between France and Rwanda has hidden the truth for more than a decade, and that "France has to reply to the accusations."

Much of the French complicity cited by the Munyo Commission has been described or published for years by authors, nongovernmental organizations, journalists, and eyewitnesses. Survie, a French NGO, has spent decades following the Rwandan question, investigated the French role exhaustively, and brought out "L'horreur qui nous prende au visage," a 600-page work in French that came out in 2005.

"Until Rwanda in 1992, we tried to work with French political parties to improve French policies in Africa," says Sharon Courtoux, a cofounder of Survie. "But the genocide, which was clear to see even before it happened, changed everything. Rwanda proved to us that there was absolutely no limit to what people were capable of doing, in defending their interests."

The 1998 French parliamentary investigation into its mission in Rwanda found that "mistakes were made," but that France was not knowingly involved in or complicit in the crimes committed by military and paramilitary forces. Yet Survie's study, and the Munyo Commission, presented compelling evidence that France trained government and paramilitary forces.

"All roads to the truth were opened up in the 1998 investigation in France," argues Ms. Courtoux, "but they did not go to the end of the road."

Mr. Wallis, reporter Chris McGreal, and Survie accounts point particularly to the French role in instances like "Operation Turquoise" – an attempt to create a safe haven for the Hutu government and peoples, which took place in the mountains of the south, a place called Bisesero. French soldiers were instructed to go into the zone. When they did, hundreds of Tutsis who were hiding in the hills thought they were coming to save them, according to Wallis. The Tutsis came out of the hills, then the French soldiers were instructed to withdraw – exposing them to the Hutu Interahamwe militia squads (who had allegedly received training from the French). "The Interahamwe just clapped their hands at that point," says Wallis. "These Tutsis had been impossible to route out, and now they were attacked and killed."

Mr. McGreal, who was in Rwanda at the time, spoke to the French colonel who was giving the orders, who identified himself as Didier Thibault. He said that he was taking orders from the "legal organization," the Hutu government.

He was actually Col. Didier Tauzin – a man who had advised the Rwandan Army and, according to a 2007 report by McGreal, had "commanded the French operation that halted the RPF [Tutsi] advance on Kigali a year earlier." That advance had been an effort by the Kagame forces to end the killing in the Hutu-run capital.

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