Rwanda bars French envoy from genocide memorial after Paris pulls its minister

Rwandan President Paul Kagame continues to blame France for its role in the 1994 genocide by extremists Hutus, prompting another diplomatic row on the eve of a memorial ceremony. 

Noor Khamis/Reuters
Rwandan President Paul Kagame (l.) and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon leave after a wreath-laying ceremony at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center during the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the genocide, in the Rwandan capital Kigali April 7, 2014.

A major diplomatic fallout between France and Rwanda underscores the fragility of the two countries' relationship as Rwanda marks the 20th anniversary of its genocide.

The two nations butted heads this weekend after Rwandan President Paul Kagame criticized – once again –  France’s "participation" in the killings of 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994.

In an interview with the weekly publication Jeune Afrique, Mr. Kagame placed blame on the "direct role of Belgium and France in the political preparation for the genocide" and on French soldiers as "actors" in the bloodbath.

In response, French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira cancelled her attendance at events today. France’s foreign ministry denied a formal boycott of the memorial, saying its ambassador to Kigali would attend instead.

But the discord deepened today, after French Ambassador Michel Flesch said he received a brief phone call informing him that he would not be accredited to attend. "Of course I am disappointed," Mr. Flesch told the Associated Press.

France's former foreign affairs minister, Bernard Kouchner, denied the charges in a radio interview with Radio France International in Kigali.  "You can accuse France of a lot when it comes to political errors that have been made … the way things happened ... but 'direct participation'? I don't think so," said Mr. Kouchner.

Similar tensions emerged at the 10th anniversary of the killings. Rwanda blames France for its alliance with the Hutu nationalist administration, whose soldiers it trained, before the killing began. And in 2006, a French judge said Kagame should be investigated for his role in the shooting down of a presidential plane in 1994, which sparked the killing spree. That led to a three-year freeze in diplomatic relations with France.

But a reconciliation has been under way since 2009. A French court recently sentenced a former Rwandan intelligence officer to 25 years in prison for his role in the massacre. Some have even argued that France has sent troops to another conflict brewing – in Central African Republic – in an effort not to repeat mistakes of Rwanda.

Foreign ministry spokesman Romain Nadal said France was "surprised" by the most recent accusations, especially at a time of reconciliation efforts. "France regrets that it cannot take part in the 20th anniversary commemorations for the genocide," he told France 24. 

Progress watch

In Kigali, The Christian Science Monitor reports on the ground that residents, upon this anniversary, are focusing on the progress that’s been made in the country 20 years later. 

While there has been a remarkable reconstruction here, however, the impact of almost an entire nation being affected by the experience of such a trauma is still very fresh.

“It is something that we see every year in April, during the official mourning month – people whose experiences come back to them very strongly,” says Charles Mudenge, a psychiatrist at the University Teaching Hospital, Kigali.

Close to a third of adult Rwandans still exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a 2011 report by the health ministry. “What happened 20 years ago can still feel very present,” Dr. Mudenge says.

Despite this, today, the two ethnic communities – the Hutus, whose extremist elements carried out the genocide, and the Tutsis, the victims – live and work alongside each other. In a country where ethnicity had once appeared on individuals' ID cards, it became illegal to ask anyone their ethnic background.

But the disquiet over France's past in Rwanda lingers. "For our two countries to really start getting along, we will have to face the truth, the truth is difficult, the truth of being close to anybody who is associated with genocide understandably is a very difficult truth to accept," Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo told  Agence France-Presse.

France admits to its role in equipping the Hutu-dominated government prior to 1994. But an editorial in Le Monde argues today that it has still not faced history. While the influential daily criticizes Kagame and his intentions in criticizing France today, it calls on Paris to address its role in the killings, which started April 7, 1994, and lasted for 100 days.

“From Vichy to the Algerian war, it took decades for France to be able to confront inconvenient truths and enlighten the dark pages of its history,” it writes.  “Twenty years after the extermination of the Tutsis, it is more than time for our country to turn the light on its policy and the action of its soldiers on the ground, during the last genocide of the 20th century.”  

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