What is The French Role in The Rwandan Genocide?

Published June 2nd, 2021 - 07:44 GMT
The Rwandan Genocide
Let's not forget: The Rwandan Genocide (AFP File Folder)

After completing its modernizing phase and transitioning into postcolonialism, colonialism, the primary paradigm under which the French state operates, appears to have generated disastrous effects in terms of human history. France has gone down in history as the cause of the massacre of one million people in Rwanda, where it had installed itself in to protect its socio-economic existence in Central Africa.

The long-standing fierce debates between politicians, intellectuals, artists, and many non-governmental organizations inside and outside France appear to have reached a point where they are now having an impact. For the first time, a French president has explicitly acknowledged that genocide took place in Rwanda. Before going into detail about this, it is important to refresh our memories on France's connection with Rwanda and the events that followed.

There were three major tribes in Rwanda: the Hutus (the majority), the Tutsis, and the Pygmies. With the advent of Westerners in the region, Rwandans, who were fundamentally united in terms of race and culture, were driven into an irreversible political and social predicament. In 1890, the Germans were the first to establish a colony in Rwanda. In the country, which was given to the Belgians after World War I, an internal conflict was instigated over the meanings intentionally attached to tribal culture, although the people were of the same nation. To that end, the minority Tutsis were supported.

Despite being a minority, the Tutsis were put in charge of the country by instilling in them the belief that they were more distinguished, resourceful, physically stronger, and more beautiful. The majority Hutus, on the other hand, were treated as second-class people. As a result, major socio-cultural and socio-political divides developed between the two tribes. This process continued until after World War II. The Belgians, who had previously been the dominating force in the region, abruptly changed their minds and began to back the Hutus instead, provoking them against the dominant Tutsis. Following that, in a conflict-torn atmosphere, the country's independence was acknowledged, and elections were held in 1962 under the auspices of the United Nations. The Party of the Hutu Emancipation Movement (Parmehutu) was elected to power with a majority in the elections. With the authority that came from winning elections, attacks were begun against the Tutsis, who used to be stronger socio-politically. As a result, 160,000 Tutsis were slaughtered. Almost no living space was left for the Tutsis, who made up 9% of the population. The Belgians, it should be noted, who were busy exploiting the country while all of this was taking place, did not interfere in the conflicts and remained bystanders.

It should also be noted that there has been a power struggle among the Hutus as well. In fact, Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu, seized power through a coup in 1973. However, the situation of the Tutsis did not change. As a result, many of the Tutsis took refuge in neighboring countries, particularly Uganda, and continued their struggle from there. At that point, armed and bloody clashes had broken out between the two tribes, and life in Rwanda had come to a standstill. It should also be noted that Britain had a presence in Uganda. Although, when the developments on the ground are considered, it seemed as if the Belgian-backed Hutus and the British-backed Tutsis had been fighting, there was, in reality, no such tension between the two countries in Rwanda; on the contrary, Belgium and Britain’s attitude was such that they appeared to have been acting in collusion.

The shooting down of the plane carrying Hutu President Juvénal Habyarimana on April 6, 1994, started a chain of events that turned the slaughter into a genocide. According to the information available, between 800,000 and one million Tutsis were killed in the months that followed the downing of the plane. So much so that killing in the most torturous and heinous way possible became a prized Hutu attitude. Even non-governmental organizations, churches, and relief organizations in Rwanda have been accused of being implicated in the atrocities.

Let us now discuss France's role in the Rwandan genocide. As a result of a mindset that regards Africa as its own, France supported the current Rwandan administration by collaborating with it in the military field in 1975. Their bilateral relations further developed and reached a serious level in the 1990s, when France replaced Belgium. The Rwandan army was armed with French weaponry. And with these weapons, the Tutsis were subjected to an all-out genocide.

It should be noted that some people in France have reacted to the Hutus’ massacres against the Tutsis. Jean Varret, who was a soldier at the time, openly discussed the incidents during a televised interview in March 2019. [1] The retired general said that the military support given to the Hutus was not right and innocent people were brutally murdered with these weapons, adding that he warned the French General Staff, which would not lend him an ear. In addition, it is quite significant, as well as interesting, that certain high-level military officials allegedly made attempts to remove him from his post. As a result, on the orders of the socialist president of the time, François Mitterrand, France supposedly tried to interfere in the massacres with the military operation Turquoise. However, this move by France enraged the Hutus even more, despite the fact that it did not stop the atrocities. In fact, serious allegations have been made that the perpetrators were protected by French authorities, prompting the filing of lawsuits as a result.

There are also serious confessions on the attitude taken by France. For instance, Bernard Kouchner, who was France’s minister of health at the time, states that he called President Mitterrand and reported the current situation, but that Mitterrand hung up, saying, “You are exaggerating the situation.” Why France remained silent about the genocide in Rwanda still needs an explanation. In the final analysis, based on the available information, the Hutus are a Francophone people and are often considered to be also Francophiles. One might argue that France was seeking to consolidate its influence in the region. On the other hand, the Tutsis were backed by the British. When we focus on these two points, we can deduce that a million people were massacred as a result of the ancient French-British rivalry taking place in an innocent country like Rwanda, trampling all human values. As we can see, postcolonialism continues to be a source of oppression and calamities in Africa.

If we want to know if what happened in Rwanda was a genocide or not, we need to look up the definition in international law. The term “genocide” is a combination of the words “genos” (race in Greek) and “cide” (to kill in Latin). A term coined by the Polish historian Raphael Lemkin in 1933, genocide means “the biological and cultural destruction of national, ethnic, racial or religious groups”. This concept, which was brought to the attention of the world with the war crimes committed by the Nazis in World War II, was adopted as described above in the United Nations General Assembly meeting held on Dec. 9, 1948, and the provisions to be applied to countries in this regard were unanimously accepted. [2]


Rwandan Genocide back on agenda

In recent years, it has been often asserted that France was complicit in the genocide against the Tutsis. As a result, people began to argue that France should apologize for its colonial history. For the first time, President Macron had a commission set up, chaired by historian Vincent Duclert, to investigate this issue in depth. The purpose was to establish France’s position during the Rwandan genocide. The report was eventually released, and while it was considered a positive development by some, it was received with negative feedback from pro-colonialist politicians. Despite not actively committing genocide, France was identified as an accomplice in the report because of its backing for the Hutus and its military presence in the region while genocide was taking place. Finally, President Macron initiated a new debate, declaring that he was supportive of the idea of apologizing and facing the country’s colonial past.

However, it is essential to explain why he has chosen to follow this strategy at this time. According to our analysis, socio-economically, France has been experiencing a serious loss of ground in Africa since the 2000s. The current economic indicators also confirm this. Africans also want a cultural environment in which their bilateral connections may flourish on an equal footing, and they are working to eradicate the remains of colonial culture. While there is uncertainty about the extent of the ongoing exploitations against their will, they are ultimately looking to utilize their countries’ resources for their own interest. Naturally, this would have a negative impact on France’s regional influence. France appears to be attempting to mend fences with Africans in its most recent move by brushing aside past issues such as genocide, tragedy, and exploitation, as well as paying compensations. Rwanda is apparently the first serious step in that direction.

Even if France apologized to the Tutsis, the Hutus' rule would remain unchanged, and those who massacred a million people would, in a way, be acquitted with this apology. In fact, there is uncertainty surrounding what kind of sanctions would be imposed on the killers or how much compensation would be paid to the victims. As a result, the Hutu administration would enter into a new alliance and cooperate with France, which would have acquitted them, and would take its position in the modern world. Thus, France would express its "appreciation" by issuing an apology (along with some potential compensation), while also containing burgeoning anti-French sentiment throughout Africa as "the new patron of the Hutus."

Finally, Mr. Macron came to Rwanda’s capital Kigali on May 27 to apologize for the genocide. However, the language he used was far from carrying any guilt; they were merely meant to admit that France was neglectful during the massacres. As a result, France was only able to apologize because it failed to prevent the events and denied the accusations that it participated in the genocide. [3] Naturally, France will not face any convictions; on the contrary, by taking this action, France will be able to establish a reputation around the globe as a country that has shown the fortitude to confront its past. In fact, Mr. Macron’s frequent emphasis on “turning over a new leaf” in his speech supports the points made above.

Translated from Turkish by Can Atalay

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

[1] https://www.franceinter.fr/monde/genocide-au-rwanda-la-faute-de-la-fran….

[2] Verda Neslihan Akün, Milletlerarası Mahkeme İçtihatlarında Jenosid, İstanbul Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü Kamu Hukuku Anabilim dalı, Yüksek Lisans Tezi, İstanbul, 2003.

[3] https://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2021/05/27/a-kigali-emmanuel-mac…

Yasar Demir received his Ph.D. in 2010 from Strasbourg University with his dissertation on the becoming of Hatay a Turkey province and France’s Levant Policy. He is the author of two books; “Fransa’nın Yakındoğu Politikası” (France’s Levant Policy) and “Suriye ve Hatay” (Syria and Hatay)

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