TWO years ago, French President Emmanuel Macron announced a fact-finding commission of historians to shed full light on a less glorious past: notably France’s role in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.
Now, with the Duclert Commission expected to present its conclusions in a matter of weeks, new findings suggest the country did more than commit ‘errors’ nearly three decades ago, as one former French leader once said.
Extracts from French Foreign Ministry cables at that time, recently published by investigative website Mediapart and Agence France-Presse, appear to show Paris was aware genocide suspects were hiding in a French-army-controlled ‘safe-zone’ in Rwanda following the slaughter—and did nothing to arrest them. Instead, the ministry instructed its envoy to Rwanda, Yannick Gerard, to request their departure from the area.
The allegations have sparked sharp debate, even outrage, in recent days. But they are simply the latest to trickle out from interviews and archives from former President Francois Mitterrand’s government at the time—documents that nonetheless remain largely inaccessible except to a handful of scholars. Together, they add pressure on the Duclert Commission for a comprehensive and transparent accounting of France’s role across the horrific arc of the genocide that killed more than 800,000 people.
‘For us, it’s an extra element that confirms what we’ve denounced for years,’ said Thomas Borrel, a spokesman for Survie (Survival), a victims’ rights association that won access to the Mitterrand archives last year. ‘We hope this new discovery will prevent any kind of conclusion in the [Duclert] report that seeks to legitimize French action at the time.’
Macron, for his part, has promised an honest accounting by the commission—whose report is due in early April.
‘We owe it to ourselves to look at our past in its entirety, without any desire to conceal or self-flagellate,’ he said in a November interview with The Africa Report.
Like his recent predecessors, Macron has sought to mend long-fraught ties with Kigali over Paris’ role in the mass slaughter, inviting his Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame to visit the French capital in 2018.
France also championed the successful but controversial nomination of Rwanda’s Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo to head the Paris-based International Organisation of la Francophonie, although Kigali has long pivoted toward English and Mushikiwabo’s mastery of French reportedly was shaky.
‘What we fear is closer diplomatic ties between Paris and Kigali to the detriment of the truth,’ said Borrel of the Survie group, about his fears the Duclert Commission report will whitewash its findings.
Borrel points to the departure of one commission member late last year, after her allegedly favorable take on France’s military role during the genocide was reported in the press.
The French Foreign Ministry cables offer a different take on events.
They were disclosed by another Survie member, researcher Francois Graner, who was granted access to the Mitterrand archives. The instructions from Paris were signed by Bernard Emie, a former diplomatic adviser who now heads France’s DGSE secret service.
They are part of a raft of allegations trickling out over the years of what France knew—and what it did—not only during, but also before and after the genocide. Others include reports the country delivered weapons to Rwanda’s government before the slaughter, which largely targeted Tutsis and moderate Hutus, and provided visas to alleged genocide perpetrators afterwards.
They underscore a once-close relationship between Paris and the Hutu-dominated government of the time, which analysts say was forged in a bid to maintain French influence in the country.
France has never apologized for any role in the genocide, but in 2010, former President Nicolas Sarkozy recognised ‘errors.’
Recent years have seen a number of arrests of genocide suspects in France, including last May, when French police nabbed the alleged genocide ‘financier’ Felicien Kabuga, who had been hiding outside Paris for years.
But several dozen suspects remain at large, or have yet to be brought to trial, says Alain Gauthier, who heads a genocide survivors’ group with his Rwandan wife.
‘We continue to denounce the slowness of the French justice system, we find it insupportable,’ Gauthier said. ‘Some people being pursued are in their ‘80s, and they may die before being brought to justice.’
But Gauthier says he will keep an open mind when it comes to the Duclert Commission and its forthcoming report.
‘Let it do its work and we’ll see what comes out of it,’ he said. ‘If it doesn’t produce what we hope, we’ll say so.’