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Historians Say France Was Not Complicit In Rwanda Genocide, But Did Turn A Blind Eye

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Rwandan genocide began 27 years ago today. Nearly a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered by Hutu militias spurred on by a racist criminal regime. Allegations that France was complicit have poisoned relations with Rwanda ever since. Now, France is officially examining its role in the humanitarian disaster. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Fifteen French historians have spent the last two years poring over government archives, diplomatic cables and military files. Their conclusion? France was not directly complicit in Rwanda's mass killings, but French authorities supported the violent and extremist Rwandan government, were blind to its preparations for the massacre and reacted too slowly to stop the genocide. The historians say France, therefore, bears overwhelming responsibility for the Rwandan tragedy. Historian Vincent Duclert led the commission.

VINCENT DUCLERT: (Through interpreter) France did not understand at all. These were organized massacres with calls to kill on the radio and buses transporting militias. This was not interethnic violence, as we called it. It was planned genocide.

BEARDSLEY: The report is particularly damning for former French President Francois Mitterrand, who saw France as competing with Anglo-American influence in Africa. Mitterrand considered Rwanda's Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana a great francophone friend and ally. For France, the enemy was the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the Tutsi group in exile in neighboring anglophone Uganda, led by Paul Kagame, who is Rwanda's president today. Vincent Hugeux is a professor, writer and journalist. He spent 13 years as Africa editor at L'Express magazine and was on the ground in Rwanda.

VINCENT HUGEUX: It was one of the most traumatic professional experiences I had.

BEARDSLEY: Hugeux says the report exposes Mitterrand's blind and systematic support for a racist, corrupt and violent Rwandan regime.

HUGEUX: Why? Because of the linguistic obsession. In the mind of Mitterrand, who was at the time a man of the past, Rwanda was perceived as one of the last threatened outposts against the Anglo-Saxon conquest. It may sound, I mean, simplistic, even ridiculous, but it's true.

BEARDSLEY: The genocide began after Habyarimana's plane was shot down by unknown forces in April 1994. French troops arrived two months later under a U.N. mandate to stop the genocide. Retired French Brigadier General Patrice Sartre commanded part of that force. He says even then, his government's orders were inappropriate and led to tragic mistakes.

PATRICE SARTRE: When we arrived in Rwanda, around 10,000 Tutsis were still resisting in the Bisesero mountains in the western part of Rwanda. But because of a wrong assessment of the situation and because of inappropriate orders, we intervened only three days later when only 1- or 2,000 Tutsis were still alive.

BEARDSLEY: The report says President Mitterrand and his coterie of likeminded advisers ignored warnings from French diplomats and military officials in Rwanda and pressed on with their own policy.

ALAIN GAUTHIER AND DAFROZA GAUTHIER: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Franco-Rwandan couple Alain and Dafroza Gauthier track down Rwandan war criminals. Dafroza says many killers are still living freely in France.

DAFROZA GAUTHIER: (Through interpreter) The report is positive because it shows the responsibility of France and especially Mitterrand and his close advisers. It's very important for French public opinion that the French people know what they did.

BEARDSLEY: President Emmanuel Macron's decision to commission the report and open the archives to the public are an effort to improve relations with Rwanda. The Rwandan government has called the report a step forward, and Macron is said to be planning a trip to Kigali next month.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHIL FRANCE'S "THE SWIMMER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.