Francophonie’s role in the Rwandan genocide

by Sasha Alyson

A new report on the 1994 genocide in Rwanda further confirms what was already widely understood: France enabled this genocide, and in the intervening years, France went to great lengths to hide its complicity.

The thorough new investigation also offers a frightening look at how “Francophonie” — France’s zeal to spread French language, culture, and influence — have led it to unspeakable acts. Below are excerpts from the report. This is just a small fraction of the 628-page document; I have omitted many words but have not changed meaning.

A Foreseeable Genocide: The Role of the French Government in Connection with the Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda

Preface

When a million human beings are slaughtered over a period of one hundred days, and generations continue to suffer more than a quarter century later, there is an imperative to finding the truth. In particular, Rwanda and its people insist on understanding the role of the French government. For too long, they have watched the French government avoid the truth and fail to acknowledge its role and responsibility.

The Rwandan government believes that bringing in an outside law firm, based neither in France nor Rwanda, best helps advance the public’s understanding of the facts. In 2017, the government commissioned this Washington, DC law firm to conduct a detailed inquiry to determine the French government’s role.

There are some hopeful signs that [France’s cover-up efforts] may be changing. In 2019, President Emmanuel Macron ordered the creation of the “Duclert Commission” [on Rwanda and the genocide). Several weeks ago, the Commission issued its report and conclusions. In many respects, these findings comport with our own.

However, our Report parts ways with the Commission in several respects, including:

Responsibility: [The Duclert Commission report] fails to state what the French government was responsible for having done. Specifically, it fails to pronounce that the Government of France bears significant responsibility for having enabled a foreseeable genocide. We do so here.

Blindness: The Commission’s conclusion suggests that the French government was “blind” to the coming Genocide. Not so. The French government was neither blind nor unconscious about the foreseeable genocide.

The Cover-up: The Commission’s conclusion, in the main, does not address the quarter century after the Genocide. Our Report, by contrast, details and examines the cover-up, obstruction and false narratives promulgated by the French government since 1994.

Executive Summary

The French government, though aware of this investigation, has not been cooperative, perpetuating what by now can only be characterized as an ongoing cover-up of omission, deflection, and distortion. France’s cover-up is also a failure to accept responsibility and a miscarriage of justice.

Background

Small and without coastline, [Rwanda] was spared outside interference until the late 19th century when Germany first made colonial inroads into the region. Rwanda remained a part of German East Africa until 1916, when, during World War I, the Allies placed it under Belgium’s authority. The Belgians ruled “Ruanda-Urundi” (Rwanda and Burundi) for the next 44 years.

Belgium enforced strict hierarchical divides among otherwise fluid and overlapping quasiethnic groups — Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa — as a way of maintaining control in Rwanda. At first, colonial administrators reinforced existing Tutsi elite power structures. But during the late 1950s, the Tutsi monarchy followed numerous countries in Asia and Africa in pushing for independence from colonial rule. The Belgian response was to champion long-simmering resentment among the Hutu majority and reverse the discrimination, now elevating Hutu over Tutsi and creating a new oppressive state based on the exclusion of Tutsi.

Meanwhile, as former French colonies declared their independence, the French government sought to preserve its influence on the continent. To that end, France cultivated economic relationships with leaders across Africa, who facilitated the supply of petroleum and other natural resources to France, and who returned a percentage of revenue to France in return for military and economic support. France viewed other wealthy countries, particularly the United Kingdom and the United States, as potential rivals to this influence, significantly in resource-rich eastern Zaire, on the western border of Uganda and Rwanda. As old colonialism was dying, the importance of maintaining influence in Africa was not lost on François Mitterrand, who, as France’s minister of justice, wrote in 1957 that “[w]ithout Africa, there will be no history of France in the twenty-first century.”

When Rwanda gained independence from Belgium in 1962, France saw an opportunity. Unlike some of France’s own former colonies in Africa, Rwanda did not have oil or other precious natural resources. What made Rwanda alluring, from France’s perspective, was something else: its distinction as one of only a handful of French-speaking countries on the frontier of English-speaking East Africa (Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania). In 1963, one French Foreign Ministry official asserted that Rwanda, because of “its geographical location,” could “contribute effectively to the development of French influence” in the region. He alluded to a hope that Rwandan emigrants would bring their language and culture with them to the rest of the region, with the result that, for France, Rwanda would serve as “a significant instrument of cultural penetration in the English speaking neighboring countries.”

[Under French policies established in the early 1960s, known as françafrique] the French government provided [African leaders in former colonies and French-speaking countries] with financial and military aid in exchange for support of French positions at the United Nations, permission for France to station troops in their countries, preferential trading agreements, and, in some cases, exclusive access for French companies to lucrative African mineral sites….

[For France in 1990-91, defending Rwandan dictator] Habyarimana was a given: to refuse to help him would have risked losing a reliable ally and alarmed other African despots, who would be left to question France’s commitment to protecting them from threats to their rule. That reaction could threaten the foundations of French influence on the continent.

[Historical background]

Since the late 1950s, France had repeatedly dispatched troops to suppress uprisings in its former colonies in sub-Saharan Africa, signaling, in the words of historian John Chipman, “that when a francophone African leader close to France needed help, France would be willing to use military force to sustain him in power.” France had emerged from World War II with its borders intact and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, but with its self-image as a global power in tatters. The humiliations of the war years — its 1940 surrender to Nazi Germany and subsequent occupation during the Vichy regime — had battered the nation’s psyche and diminished France’s stature within the international sphere. “[A] sense of fragility remained,” one French scholar would later write. “The status which France inherited in 1945 was unexpected; henceforth it would be necessary to justify itself.” Its colonies, long a source of geopolitical clout, were a vital link to the nation’s past grandeur. At a time when some colonial powers were letting go, France redoubled efforts to keep its prized overseas possessions.

[Under Mitterrand, in the early 1980s, France] fell back on old habits, offering its support to francophone regimes regardless of moral compromise. As journalist and author Philip Short wrote in his biography of Mitterrand: “Corruption, one-party dictatorship and the murder, imprisonment and torture of political opponents were passed over in silence.”

Conclusions and Findings

It is our conclusion that the French government bears significant responsibility for enabling a foreseeable genocide. For many years, the French government supported the corrupt and murderous regime of Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana. French officials armed, advised, trained, equipped, and protected the Rwandan government, heedless of the Habyarimana regime’s commitment to the dehumanization and, ultimately, the destruction and death of Tutsi in Rwanda. French officials did so to advance France’s own interests, in particular the reinforcement and expansion of France’s power and influence in Africa. And they did so despite constant and ever-increasing evidence that a genocide was foreseeable.

The French government would not accept an RPF victory, as it risked unraveling the trust that francophone African leaders placed in France to protect them from threats to their own power. As a result, Mitterrand’s support for Habyarimana did not waver even as his government detained, tortured, murdered, and otherwise persecuted innocent people simply because of their ethnic identification. Dependent on — and highly responsive to — France, Habyarimana and his allies rightly understood the French government’s unqualified aid to mean they could continue to terrorize and slaughter Tutsi with impunity without risking France’s military assistance, financial support, and political backing. In short, French geopolitical interests mattered more than Rwandan lives.

When the RPF took control of Kigali and was poised to wrest control of the rest of Rwanda from the genocidaires [people guilty of genocide], French officials hastily placed one-fifth of the country under France’s protection, a so-called “Safe Humanitarian Zone” where genocidaires would find refuge. The French government decided not to arrest, detain, or systematically disarm the genocidaires in the Safe Humanitarian Zone. Instead, it allowed extremists safe passage to Zaire, where they re-armed to conduct raids across the border in Rwanda; terrorized civilians in refugee camps; and created a second humanitarian disaster. In the end, Turquoise contributed to the destabilization of the region and saved few lives, relative to those lost in the Genocide.

[W]e found no evidence that French officials or personnel participated directly in the killing of Tutsi during that period. However, only the French government was unwavering in its support for its Rwandan allies even when their genocidal intentions became clear, and only the French government was an indispensable collaborator in building the institutions that would become instruments of the Genocide. No other foreign government both knew the dangers posed by Rwandan extremists and enabled those extremists as they prepared to bring about the deaths of more than one million victims of the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi — persons killed because they were Tutsi, resembled Tutsi, were related to Tutsi, protected Tutsi, or opposed the extremist politics that sought to divide the nation. The French government’s role was singular. And still, it has not yet acknowledged that role or atoned for it.

6 April – Mid-June 1994: The French Government Continued to Oppose the RPF, Which Was Fighting to End the Genocide.

The French government responded to the start of the Genocide with Operation Amaryllis, a mission to evacuate French and other foreign nationals. It also evacuated notorious figures in the Genocide…. Amaryllis soldiers witnessed the brutal slaughter of Tutsi civilians, but under orders refrained from saving lives. [Amaryllis was a French-led mission, operating under a U.N. mandate.] In late April 1994, the French government welcomed senior officials of the genocidal interim Rwandan government to Paris. The officials were in France to request arms and ammunition. The United States and Belgium refused an audience with the same interim government officials.

As the Genocide continued in full view of the international community, France obstructed UN efforts to acknowledge and condemn the complicity of the interim government. President Mitterrand and several senior French officials favored the perpetrators of the Genocide rather than those fighting to stop it — framing the massacres before the international community as the continuation of a war between opposing armies, instead of the Genocide that it was; advocating for a cease-fire and the resumption of a failed peace process, as if negotiation was the antidote to extermination; failing to use France’s influence to stop the hate media broadcasts or otherwise effectively pressure the interim government and the FAR to put an end to the killing; and watering down UN resolutions intended to shame the interim government.

As the Genocide took thousands of lives each day in full view of the international community, France obstructed UN efforts to acknowledge and condemn the complicity of the interim government.

[Editor’s note: From the time of the U.N.’s founding in 1945, France has occupied one of five permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council, giving it great influence, as well as veto power over U.N. decisions. No countries of Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe, the Pacific Island, or the Middle East sit on the Security Council, which consists of the USA, the UK, France, Russia, and China.]

Notes and Sources

Top illustration: Skulls at Nyamata Memorial Site, Rwanda. by Inisheer (Creative Commons license CC-BY-3.0)

Source: “A Foreseeable Genocide: The Role of the French Government in Connection with the Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda,” by the firm of Levy Firestone Muse LLP, Washington, 19 April 2021. To download the full PDF to your device, click here.

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1 thought on “Francophonie’s role in the Rwandan genocide

  1. A MUST READ FOR ALL RWANDANS/#RwOT:

    Brother Sasha Alyson thanks a lot for this piece of article you wrote about the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda particularly on the 3 points you listed as attached together with the executive summary.

    Kudos a million times.

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