“France did not understand that, while trying to prevent a regional conflict, or a civil war, it was in fact standing by the side of a genocidal regime,” Macron said Thursday following a visit to the Gisozi memorial in the Rwandan capital Kigali.
“By doing so, it endorsed an overwhelming responsibility,” Macron added, in the strongest public admission of responsibility from a French leader to date.
This historic statement was pronounced during Macron’s trip to Rwanda, a country central to the President’s strategy to reshape France’s image in Africa.
President of survivors association Ibuka France Etienne Nsanzimana said that, “although survivors wanted clear apologies,” French President Emmanuel Macron had “asked for forgiveness in other words” in a highly symbolic moment for survivors.
Dafroza Gauthier, a researcher of the Rwandan genocide and member of the Collective of Civil Plaintiffs for Rwanda, told CNN she was “very disappointed” that Macron did not clearly apologize.
“He said that only the victims could pardon France. But how could they pardon if no one asks?” Gauthier said.
Ever since the genocide, France has been accused by survivors’ groups and researchers of militarily supporting the French-speaking Hutu regime, which it saw as an essential ally in Africa, even after massacres had started. In 1994, over 800,000 mainly ethnic Tutsis were killed by Hutu militias in a hundred days.
Macron also vowed that “no suspected genocide perpetrator will be able to avoid justice” because “recognizing our past is also – and above all else – continuing the work of justice.”
France has been blamed for allowing alleged Hutu perpetrators to leave Rwanda and to let some of them live in France, undisturbed, for years. Bringing them to justice is one of the main fights led by survivors’ association Ibuka.
A “major step forward”
Macron’s admission was based on the conclusions of the Duclert report, an independent report commissioned by the French Presidency, which established France’s “overwhelming responsibility” in the genocide.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame praised Macron’s words on Thursday, saying that they “were something more valuable than an apology: they were the truth.”
This speech was a “major step” in the relationship between the two countries, Kagame added.
“France and Rwanda are going to relate much better, to the benefit of both our people,” Kagame said, even if “the relationship between the two countries will never be entirely conventional.”
The visit in Kigali Gisozi memorial was intended to mark a final step in the normalization between France and Rwanda. But, for some activists, the most important steps are yet to come.
Jeanine Munyeshuli, a Rwandan researcher who works with survivors’ associations, told CNN that “the most important is not what is said at the memorial, but which actions — judicial, legislatives — will be taken. I want it to become impossible for officials to minimize France’s involvement in the genocide.”
Wiping the colonial slate clean
For Macron, reconciling memories in Rwanda goes beyond just one country. From Rwanda to Algeria, the French President is making concerted effort to reset ties with African populations.
“This issue of the involvement of France in Rwanda is not just about our own national history or the bilateral relationship with Rwanda,” an Elysée source said.
“It is also about France’s relationship with the whole continent,” the Elysée source added.
Shortly after his election, Macron announced that he wanted to depart from traditional French policy in Africa and move on from the colonial heritage, in a speech in Burkina Faso’s Ouagadougou University in 2017.
“I come from a generation for whom colonial crimes are undeniable and are part of our history,” Macron acknowledged in Ouagadougou.
Faced with growing anti-French sentiment on the continent, Macron has been trying to “wipe a clean slate over France’s colonial and post-colonial image” said Antoine Glaser, journalist and expert in the relationship between France and African countries.
But despite his efforts, “there has never been as much anti-French sentiment on the continent, among populations as much as among business and in the diasporas,” Glaser added.
Beyond acknowledging France’s complicity in the genocide, some like François Graner, a French researcher on the Rwandan genocide, believe that the country needs to acknowledge the political choices that led it to support genocide in Rwanda.
“France turned a blind eye to massacres and continued to support the Hutus simply to maintain its influence in the region,” Graner said.
“And the issue is that if we do not draw these critical political lessons, there is no reason for history not to repeat itself, because French policy has not changed,” he added.
France’s “apparent blindness to tyranny”
For Cameroonian postcolonial academic Achille Mbembe, “there can be no de-politicized relationship between France and Africa, because what fuels anti-French sentiment are French political choices.”
Also unpopular are the frequent interventions by the French military, particularly in the Sahel region, where France is fighting terrorist insurgencies alongside armies from Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad. Last January, the army was accused of launching air strikes at a marriage ceremony in Mali.
The French army defended itself in a press release blaming “disinformation tactics,” arguing that it was targeting “a jihadist group” and that “nothing indicating festivities, or a marriage were observed.”
Macron announced that the military presence would “evolve” in a press conference last February. But, despite frequent controversies, withdrawing troops is not on the horizon.
However, Mbembe emphasized that “the most important issue that angers African people, all generations included, is France’s apparent blindness to tyranny in Africa.”
“I can say this… what angers people above all else is France’s blind support to brutal and sometimes bloody regimes in the name of stability, a false stability that populations do not seem to benefit from,” he said.
“Initially, Macron really legitimized the dynastic succession of Deby because Chad is the basis of the military strategy in the Sahel,” Glaser says, “even if he backed down later by calling for a democratic transition.”
Repairing relationships and tackling anti-French sentiment on the continent will prove tricky if this strategy of turning a blind eye to oppression is not addressed, Mbembe explained.
“I sincerely think that nothing else will move forward as long as this is not solved. All else stems from this original sin,” he said.
This story has been updated.