France’s Rwandan Skeleton

Overshadowed by the start of the Olympics and the Russian incursion into Georgia was the release of a report by the Rwandan Ministry of Justice accusing the government of France of direct involvement in the Rwandan genocide of 1994 which claimed the lives of nearly 800,000 people.

If true, this accusation would put France directly into the Belgrade-Khartoum axis of state-sponsored ethnic cleansing and genocide. To date, Paris’ only response has been to dismiss the allegations as ‘inacceptable’ and to suggest that the report was in some way a retaliation on the part of Rwandan President Paul Kagame who himself had recently been named by a French judge as the likely assassin of the Rwandan President Habyarimana. This is a blame game with no possible good outcome.

If all this sounds like convoluted, tit-for-tat pinning the tail on the genocidaire it also masks an underlying set of troubling circumstances, that in 1994 French support for the Hutu led government of Habyarimana — and its fear of losing Rwanda as an African client — may have led it down the dark road of complicity in one of the greatest crimes of the 20th century.

It is not difficult to believe that the French viewed the Uganda-based Kagame-led Tutsi insurgency through the eyes of it Hutu clients. The Hutu hierarchy were all Francophone. Rwanda’s army had been trained and supported by French military advisors and supplied by French arms manufacturers. They may even have gone so far as to believe the Hutu rhetoric that Tutsi’s were undermining French interests and had to be dealt with in such as way as to neutralize them for the foreseeable future.

Whether such a line of thought led French military personnel to directly participate in the killing of Tutsi’s or whether the French authorities allowed the genocide to continue in the so-called safety-zone they had established during their Operation Turqouise (as the report alleges) is something for the French government to respond to.

Rather than dismissing the Rwandan report the French government ought to step out in front of it and send special investigators to Kigali to look at all the evidence and if there is evidence of complicity then tribunals should be set up in Paris to track down the guilty.

The report mentions former French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin and other Mitterand-era big-wigs such as Edouard Balladur and Allan Jupe. In addition, members of the military and civil service are also named and all are accused of being part of an organized campaign on behalf of the French government to keep Rwanda in the French sphere of influence.

Is this plausible? Is it possible to believe that the French were so cynical and so fearful that they allowed murder to occur (and may even have had a hand in it?) One thing that is undeniable is that the French had for years been strong supporters of the Hutu-led regime. It is also the case that the French have been acting with impunity in central Africa for decades and no one can accuse them of looking out for the best interests of the average African. (One of their major clients for a time was ‘Emperor’ Bokassa of the Central African Republic who was suspected of cannibalism while serving as his country’s head of state.)

As for the issue of whether or not President Kagame ordered the shooting down of the presidential plane: that is a different matter altogether. Kagame vehemently denies this allegation, but does take the trouble to explain that as far as he was concerned his forces were in conflict with the brutal anti-Tutsi regime in Kigali, and therefore, the shooting down of the plane, no matter who did it, was a legitimate act of retaliation. In any event, it does seem a stretch for a French judge to be issuing such an indictment just weeks before Rwanda’s own report was to be released.

By all accounts, Rwanda has had a remarkable turnaround and is haltingly on the way to reconciliation and true development under the leadership of Paul Kagame. History will probably forget most of the details of what happened in Rwanda in 1993-1994 but the French people should insist that its government doesn’t, at least not quite yet.

Michael Keating is a Senior Fellow/Associate Director of the Center for Democracy and Development at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Read other articles by Michael, or visit Michael's website.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Michael Kenny said on August 20th, 2008 at 12:38pm #

    Is this plausible? Yes, it is. The French have still a significant but hyper-discreet military presence in their former colonies in Black Africa. When there was trouble in Ivory Coast a while ago, French soldiers that nobody knew were there suddenly emerged from the shadows. Rwanda, of course, was not a French colony. It was German until 1918 and Belgian after that but being French-speaking, I could see the French having their noses in there.

    But I doubt if anyone in France really cares. As long as all is peaceful, they look the other way. If trouble statrs, they will just want France out of there if things can’t be quietened down fairly fast. Except Kouchner, of course, but how long will he last?

  2. cg said on August 20th, 2008 at 1:28pm #

    Didn’t someone once say; “one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic?”
    And hasn’t that been proven true time after time?
    So France’s skeleton has plenty of company.
    Enough for a pretty good poker game, no doubt.

  3. brian said on August 20th, 2008 at 3:43pm #

    Not this fraud again! the reason Kagame has launched this attack on France NOW is that a french judge has charged Kagame and members of his Tutsi govt with the assasintaion o former president Habyarimana, an event which sparked off the ‘genocide’:

    ‘Tit-for-tat accusations

    Rwandan president Paul Kagame, a Tutsi, launched an inquiry that led to a 500-page document naming 33 senior French officials – including former President François Mitterrand and former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin – in 2006, immediately after a famous French antiterrorism judge, Jean-Louis Bruguiere, in 2006 said Mr. Kagame had masterminded the downing of an aircraft carrying former Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu.

    The downed plane question is extremely sensitive in Rwanda–”something like a 9/11 event in the US,” says Thomas Cargill, a specialist at Chatham House, a think tank in London – since it is regarded as the trigger for bloodshed between Hutus and Tutsis.

    Kagame denies involvement, but he has treated the nonbinding indictment as an insult – given widespread local views that French UN peacekeepers favored the Hutu government and did little to stop the killing. ‘

    ‘Last week a paper was presented at the University of Paris which details original UN and U.S. government documents from 1994 which confirm that in May 1994 UNCHR and the Red Cross reported “20-30 bodies headless bodies every 30 minutes” in the Akagera River then controlled by the RPF. And, U.S. Undersecretary of State George Moose reported in September 1994 that the RPF was killing “10,000 civilians a month” in one small part of Rwanda. The evidence from original UN files that Kagame is responsible for the assassination of Habyarimana and that he refused to agree to a ceasefire that would have stopped the killings….because of his military strategy to seize power, has been put into the ICTR record by the defence.

    UN files also confirm that, UN experts reported as early as 2003 that Kagame’s army had invaded the eastern Congo in 1996 and continues to control large portions of the Congo in a conflict that has cost millions of lives, and continues to this day.

    ADAD calls on the Judges of the ICTR, and the members of the Security Council to reject the now admitted manipulation of the ICTR to create impunity that Carla Del Ponte describes as resulting from political support from the current Rwandan government for its powerful patrons in the United States and United Kingdom.

    Meanwhile, FYI on Tustis in Burundi:

    ‘It is hard to talk to a politician in this Central African country today without the word genocide coming up.

    The threat of genocide against the Tutsi elite, who have dominated power and wealth here since independence, is used to justify everything from avoiding peace talks with Hutu rebel leaders to refusing to integrate the army.

    The Tutsi propaganda here in the capital preaches a strange version of recent Burundian history, portraying the Tutsi as the chief victims of the last three years of violence.

    The view glosses over numerous massacres of Hutu civilians by the Tutsi-dominated army since the current round of ethnic bloodshed began in October 1993. It also ignores the fact that it was senior Tutsi military officers who sparked the violence in the first place when they murdered the country’s first democratically elected president, a Hutu. They then did everything they could to thwart successive coalition governments led by the Hutu.

    But regardless of whether it is true, the perspective of the Tutsi here is the main obstacle to a negotiated settlement between the Government, led by Maj. Pierre Buyoya, and Hutu rebel and political factions. Peace talks between the two sides are scheduled to begin in Tanzania on Aug. 25 under the mediation of Julius Nyerere, the former Tanzanian President.

    The trouble is that Tutsi politicians have shifted the debate from one about power to one about survival. They have equated the return of democracy, and a Hutu to the presidency, with the annihilation of the Tutsi.

  4. Kabayiza said on August 21st, 2008 at 2:59am #

    Kagame retaliating to a french judge’s indictment? What if the chronology of events showed you that the french judge’s indictment was actually a retaliation to Rwanda’s creation of what people in Rwanda call “The Mucyo Commission” to investigate france’s role in the Rwandan genocide? Would you volunteer to write an article about that?

  5. brian said on August 21st, 2008 at 2:49pm #

    ‘What if the chronology of events showed you ‘

    they dont. But its in Tutis interest that they appear to.

    Kabayiza…you seem unaware the Tustis have a history of genocide against the Hutus, while claiming they are the victims (similar to israels policy of playing the victim)…Witness events in Burundi. Rwandas Kagame has been found to have been the mastermind behind the assassination of president Habyarimana…why do you keep denying it?That was the event that spurred the ‘genocide’ a word much to often bandied about in what was an ethnic war.

    So, no there was no French support for ‘genocide’. What there was was a war to gain control of Rwanda by the Tustsis after the underdog Hutus had gained their freedom in thue 1960s liberation struggles.

  6. Michael Keating said on August 24th, 2008 at 7:37pm #


    You do not present anything convincing to suggest that the French were not helpful to the Hutu strategy to annihilate the Tutsis in Rwanda. Even if President Kagame had ordered the shooting down of the airplane it hardly excuses the behavior of the Hutu leadership. Shifting the discussion to Burundi is besides the point as well.

    The question here is a simple one: did the French authorities actively aid and abet the killing of 800,000 Tutsis, or at best, did they do nothing to prevent it? Any other questions are important but irrelevant. The question of Kagame’s involvement in other African adventures is besides the point as well. None of the 800,000 dead had anything to do with what subsequently happened in the Congo.

    If France’s nose is clean in this one they could easily dispel the accusations but many independent observers, including several French journalists who were on the scene, are not so sure.

    It is not up to France to judge the actions of Kagame. That’s why we have an International Criminal Court. This whole affair cries out for and independent assessment, which the French people should welcome and the French government should embrace.