France fate on the Rwandan genocide

By The Rwandan Lawyer


Recently two reports were published focusing on the role eventually played by France in the genocide committed in Rwanda. One is issued by the historians’ commission headed by Vincent Duclert; the other one is from Rwandan government. The present study strives to analyze and predict the legal and political future of relationships between France and Rwanda which seem relatively promising.

1.Reports salient contents

1.1.Duclert report

A damning report handed over to French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday by Vincent Duclert sheds light on the role of Paris in the genocide against Tutsis in Rwanda. The two year’s worth of research digging through historical archives — coordinated by historian Duclert– asserts that France failed in Rwanda as the then French president, François Mitterrand, and his entourage showed guilty blindness by supporting the regime of Juvénal Habyarimana. This revelation explains, among other things, France’s military support despite warnings about the risks of genocide. However, the document does not use the term ‘complicity’ in genocide to describe France’s attitude between April and June 1994. Rwandan President Paul Kagame has long been vocal about the perceived hypocrisy displayed by France as far as human rights given the still unresolved history between the two nations.

– Background and Context –

France’s policy in Rwanda between 1990 and 1994, led by an “ideologically blinded” president and his entourage, was a “failure” and bears “overwhelming” responsibility for the Tutsi genocide, according to a scathing report by historians submitted to Emmanuel Macron on Friday.

Kigali welcomed “an important step towards a common understanding of the role of France”, in a statement from the Foreign Ministry.

The report “marks a considerable step forward” in understanding the French commitment in Rwanda, the French head of state said in a statement from the presidency.

France, where several people suspected of responsibility for the 1994 genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda have settled, “will continue its efforts” against those responsible for genocide, he added.

The French president said he hoped that the publication of this report would allow an “irreversible” rapprochement with Kigali.

Although relations between the two countries have eased with the arrival in power of Emmanuel Macron in 2017, France’s role in Rwanda has remained a volatile issue for more than 25 years. It is also the subject of a violent and passionate debate between researchers, academics and politicians.

This report of more than 1,000 pages, the result of two years of analysis of French archives, draws up an uncompromising assessment of the military and political involvement of Paris while dismissing the “complicity” of genocide long denounced by Kigali.

This is a downside that did not escape Hubert Védrine, Secretary-General of the French Presidency at the time of the genocide, who welcomed the “honesty” of the report and stressed that it “rules out any complicity on the part of France”.

Present in Rwanda since the Great Lakes country gained independence from Belgium, France “remained blind to the preparation” of the 1994 genocide of the Rwandan Tutsis, asserts in its conclusions the commission of 14 historians chaired by Vincent Duclert, set up in 2019 by Emmanuel Macron.

The historians review the French commitment during these four decisive years, during which the genocidal drift of the Hutu regime was put in place, leading to the tragedy of 1994: some 800,000 people, mostly Tutsi, exterminated in abominable conditions between April and July.

The report describes an African policy decided at the highest level by the Socialist president of the time, François Mitterrand, and his close circle, an entourage motivated by “ideological constructs” or the desire not to displease the head of state.

He describes decision-makers who were “locked into” a post-colonial “ethnicist” interpretation of the situation and who decided to give almost “unconditional” support to the “racist, corrupt and violent” regime of Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana, against a Tutsi rebellion considered to be remotely controlled from English-speaking Uganda.

– “Alignment” –

“This alignment with the Rwandan government is the result of a desire on the part of the head of state and the presidency of the Republic,” write the fourteen historians of the commission, insisting on the “strong, personal and direct relationship” that François Mitterrand had with the Hutu president Juvénal Habyarimana.

This relationship, coupled with an obsession with making Rwanda a territory for the defence of the French-speaking world against the Tutsi rebels who had taken refuge in Uganda, justified “the delivery of considerable quantities of arms and ammunition to the Habyarimana regime, as well as the extensive involvement of the French military in the training of the Rwandan armed forces”.

From October 1990, the date of an offensive by the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front, a former Tutsi rebellion led by Paul Kagame, now President of Rwanda), Paris took up the cause of the Habyarimana regime. It committed itself militarily with the military operation Noroît, which was supposed to protect foreign expatriates, but which de facto constituted a ‘dissuasive’ presence to protect a wavering regime against the rebel offensive.

While urging Habyarimana to democratise his regime and negotiate with his opponents – which led to the Arusha Peace Accords in August 1993 — France ignored the numerous warnings from Kigali and Paris that the regime was drifting towards extremism and the risk of ‘genocide’ of the Tutsis.

– Presidential circle –

Whether they come from the French military attaché in Kigali, NGOs, certain diplomats or the intelligence services, these warnings are ignored or dismissed by the president and his circle.

“One may wonder if, in the end, French decision-makers really wanted to hear an analysis that contradicted the policy implemented in Rwanda,” write the researchers.

The report underlines the heavy responsibility of François Mitterrand’s General Staff (EMP), headed by General Christian Quesnot and his deputy Colonel (now General) Jean-Pierre Huchon.

“The EMP bears a very important responsibility in the installation of a general hostility of the Elysée towards the RPF”, writes the report, which denounces “irregular practices”, even “officine practices” of this body which bypasses all the regular channels to implement French policy on the ground.

With the tacit approval of the president: “no document shows a desire on the part of the head of state to sanction these soldiers or to restrain them in their initiatives,” the report points out.

At the same time, the diplomatic establishment was hardly more critical – with rare exceptions: “the diplomats espouse the dominant position of the authorities without distance or reservation”, and their administration is “impervious” to criticism.

The arrival of a right-wing government in 1993 — France was entering a “cohabitation” period — did not fundamentally change the situation, despite the sometimes “ruthless” confrontations between the Elysée and the government of Prime Minister Edouard Balladur, who was much less inclined towards French involvement in Rwanda.

– Inability to think about the genocide –

When the genocide began on 7 April 1994, the day after the attack on President Habyarimana’s plane (the report does not name the sponsors, which has been the subject of controversy for nearly 30 years), this did not lead to “a fundamental rethinking of France’s policy, which remains obsessed with the RPF threat”. And even if the head of right-wing diplomacy, Alain Juppé, was the first to speak of “genocide” in mid-May 1994, the reading grid quickly reverted to “inter-ethnic massacres” and a “civil war”.

There is an “obstinacy to characterise the Rwandan conflict in ethnic terms, to define a civil war where there is a genocidal enterprise”, write the historians.

In a context of international withdrawal or immobility — the UN, the former colonial power Belgium, the United States – France was the first to react by launching in June 1994, under a UN mandate, a military-humanitarian operation aimed at “stopping the massacres”.

This controversial operation, Turquoise, certainly “saved many lives, but not those of the vast majority of Rwandan Tutsis exterminated in the first weeks of the genocide”, writes the commission, which stresses that the French authorities “refused to arrest” the masterminds of the genocide who had found refuge in the area under French control. This point is one of the most controversial of the French action in Rwanda.

The political and military leaders of the time argued that they had saved the honour of the international community by being the only ones to intervene in Rwanda.

The genocide ended with the victory of the RPF in July 1994. Since then, France has maintained tense, even execrable, relations with Rwanda, marked by the breaking off of diplomatic relations in 2006.

1.2.Rwanda report blames France for ‘enabling’ the 1994 genocide

The French government bears “significant” responsibility for “enabling a foreseeable genocide,” a report commissioned by the Rwandan government concludes about France’s role before and during the horror in which an estimated 800,000 people were slaughtered in 1994.

The report, which The Associated Press has read, comes amid efforts by Rwanda to document the role of French authorities before, during, and after the genocide, part of the steps taken by France’s President Emmanuel Macron to improve relations with the central African country.

The 600-page report says that France “did nothing to stop” the massacres, in April and May 1994, and in the years after the genocide tried to cover up its role and even offered protection to some perpetrators.

It was made on Monday after its formal presentation to Rwanda’s Cabinet.

It concludes that in years leading up to the genocide, former French President Francois Mitterrand and his administration had knowledge of preparations for the massacres — yet kept supporting the government of then-Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana despite the “warning signs.”

“The French government was neither blind nor unconscious about the foreseeable genocide,” the authors stress.

The Rwandan report comes less than a month after a French report, commissioned by Macron, concluded that French authorities had been “blind” to the preparations for genocide and then reacted too slowly to appreciate the extent of the killings and to respond to them. It concluded that France had “heavy and overwhelming responsibilities” by not responding to the drift that led to the slaughter that killed mainly ethnic Tutsis and the moderate Hutus who tried to protect them. Groups of extremist Hutus carried out the killings.

The two reports, with their extensive even if different details, could mark a turning point in relations between the two countries.

Rwanda, a small but strategic country of 13 million people, is “ready” for a “new relationship” with France, Rwanda’s Foreign Affairs Minister Vincent Biruta told AP.

“Maybe the most important thing in this process is that those two commissions have analyzed the historical facts, have analyzed the archives which were made available to them and have come to a common understanding of that past,” he said. “From there we can build this strong relationship.”

A top official in Macron’s office on Monday welcomed the report as a “decisive step” which showed “the willingness expressed by Rwandan authorities to write a shared history and, above all, to look to a common future.”

He also noted “unprecedented political trust” reached between Paris and Kigali as Rwandan officials have shown signs that they agree with the “irreversible rapprochement approach” taken by France.

Macron is considering traveling to Rwanda in the coming months, said the official, who spoke anonymously in accordance with the French presidency’s policies.

The Rwandan report, commissioned in 2017 from the Washington law firm of Levy Firestone Muse, is based on a wide range of documentary sources from governments, non-governmental organizations and academics including diplomatic cables, documentaries, videos, and news articles. The authors also said they interviewed more than 250 witnesses.

In the years before the genocide, “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,” the report charges.

French authorities at the time pursued “France’s own interests, in particular the reinforcement and expansion of France’s power and influence in Africa.”

In April and May 1994, at the height of the genocide, French officials “did nothing to stop” the massacres, says the report.

Operation Turquoise, a French-led military intervention backed by the U.N. which started on June 22, “came too late to save many Tutsi,” the report says.

Authors say they found “no evidence that French officials or personnel participated directly in the killing of Tutsi during that period.”

This finding echoes the conclusion of the French report that cleared France of complicity in the massacres, saying that “nothing in the archives” demonstrates a “willingness to join a genocidal operation.”

The Rwandan report also addressed the attitude of French authorities after the genocide.

Over the past 27 years, “the French government has covered up its role, distorted the truth, and protected” those who committed the genocide, it says.

The report suggests that French authorities made “little efforts” to send to trial those who committed the genocide. Three Rwandan nationals have been convicted of genocide so far in France.

It also strongly criticizes the French government for not making public documents about the genocide. The government of Rwanda notably submitted three requests for documents in 2019, 2020 and this year that the French government “ignored,” according to the report.

Under French law, documents regarding military and foreign policies can remain classified for decades.

But things may be changing, the Rwandan report says, mentioning “hopeful signs.”

On April 7, the day of commemoration of the genocide, Macron announced the decision to declassify and make accessible to the public the archives from 1990 to 1994 that belong to the French president and prime minister’s offices.

“Recent disclosures of documents in connection with the (French) report … may signal a move toward transparency,” authors of the Rwandan report said.

President Paul Kagame of Rwanda praised the report commissioned by Macron as “a good thing,” welcoming efforts in Paris to “move forward with a good understanding of what happened.”

Félicien Kabuga, a Rwandan long wanted for his alleged role in supplying machetes to the killers, was arrested outside Paris last May.

And in July an appeals court in Paris upheld a decision to end a years-long investigation into the plane crash that killed Habyarimana and set off the genocide. That probe aggravated Rwanda’s government because it targeted several people close to Kagame for their alleged role, charges they denied.

Last week, a Rwandan priest was arrested in France for his alleged role in the genocide, which he denied.

Macron’s office said the French government is committed to provide the “necessary means” to allow the “intensification” of legal proceedings against alleged perpetrators of the genocide. Activists estimate more than 100 of them are believed to live on French territory.

2.Analysis of legal and political issues

A series of parameters underlie the positions taken by the authors of the two reports respectively. 

2.1.Political and diplomatic issues

The relationships between the two countries were slowly got up with the election of Mushikiwabo Louise at the position of secretary general of the francophonie which was overtly supported by President Macron during the campaign which opposed her to the Canadian Michaelle Jean who had ended her term but was desiring to renew it nolens volens. Rwandan president got to interested by France notably by investing in PSG French football club.There are other specific gestures like the arrest of the alleged funder of genocide Kabuga Felicien and other genocide suspects residing in this country; the cancellation of prosecution against Rwandan army officers for war crimes committed during their invasion of Rwanda(1990-1994). This offer from France was significant in the eyes of Kigali which had been indifferent and expressing hostile views vis-à-vis the hexagon.

2.2.Legal issues

The two reports do not aim at establishing the criminal liability of this country as accomplice-offender or main offender like others in terms of its mastermind role in the perpetration of those odious crimes in Rwanda especially for having continuously supported the criminalized regime of late president Habyarimana Juvenal. But objectively speaking, is France really guilty of facts constituting the crime of genocide committed in Rwanda?

The legal response is negative for the following reasons. Primo, France was for long time entertaining military cooperation with Rwanda before the invasion of 1990 by the RPF and logically it could not stop it while it was a very time to act.

Secondo, this country was probably aware of the geostrategic plans plotted by the Anglo-Saxon superpowers i.e. USA and UK together with Uganda targeting the integration of Rwanda in their control sphere by arming the tuts rebellion whose members were generally parts of Ugandan army and having elected military base in Uganda. 

Tertio, the military aid provided by France to the then Rwanda is not different from what is done in its former colonies like Gabon, Tchad, Ivory Coast, all but a few, where it intervenes who there occurs insecurity often strengthen the local armies to counter it.

Quarto, the perusal of the two reports does not explicitly establish the mens rea or intentional element of the French intervention because it was just supporting its partner as per the military cooperation agreement without taking into account the social dissensions which were prevailing in the country caused by the invasion of RPF essentially constituted by Tutsi refugees who left the country in the 1959-1960 years. 


Rwanda has an interest to maintain peaceful relationships with France and this implies to not criminalize it as it will gain a lot from its force position; on the other side, France as a brilliant superpower fears to see it image disparaged by a small and poor country it can easily get on various prices financial, diplomatic, legal,etc.