The French president, Emmanuel Macron, has arrived in Rwanda to “write a new page” in the relationship between the two countries that was poisoned by France’s role in the 1994 Tutsi genocide.
The Élysée said the visit was important and symbolic, aimed at making “the final step” in the normalisation of Franco-Rwandan relations by finally addressing Paris’s role in the slaughter.
A key element to the visit will be a speech on Thursday morning by the French president at the genocide memorial in Kigali. Macron’s aides have not given details of the exact wording he will use, but say it will be “particularly solemn”.
“The president will address genocide victims and survivors. We hope to find words to be able to reach those people,” an Elysée source said, adding that among young people in Africa and France there was a need to put into words France’s role during that period.
“We will answer that demand for understanding,” the source said.
The Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, who has accused France repeatedly of aiding the genocide, indicated earlier this year that relations between Paris and Kigali were on the mend.
His comments followed a report that concluded France bore a “serious and overwhelming responsibility” for the 1994 wave of killings that left as many as 800,000 people dead, the majority from Rwanda’s minority Tutsi ethnic population.
“When you talk about overwhelming responsibility … that means a lot,” Kagame said during a visit to Paris in March. “This is a big step forward. Maybe not to forget, but to forgive it, and be able to move forward.”
Asked if an apology from Macron would also be an important gesture, Kagame, whose rebel army ended the genocide carried out by those loyal to the Hutu-led government, replied: “I think so.”
Rwanda severed diplomatic ties with France in 2006 after a French judge ordered arrest warrants against nine Kagame aides accused of links to the shooting down of Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane on 6 April 1994. The killings began the following day, and continued until 15 July. Over 100 days, armed militias slaughtered members of the Tutsi ethnic group and some moderate Hutus with a brutality that shocked the international community, although no outside country intervened to stop the killings.
French troops led a military-humanitarian intervention called Operation Turquoise launched by Paris under a UN mandate between June and August 1994, but critics have said it was intended to support the Hutu government responsible for the genocide, a claim the French report confirms.
Macron’s visit is the first by a French president since Nicolas Sarkozy travelled to Kigali in 2010. Sarkozy admitted France had committed an “error of judgment” at the time of the genocide but stopped short of an apology.
Macron has said his visit is one of “politics and remembrance” but also intended to create economic ties. He is expected to name France’s first accredited ambassador to Rwanda in six years. Afterwards, the French president will travel to South Africa for a two-day visit focusing on the fight against the Covid pandemic and the economic crisis it is causing, as well as discussions on the climate crisis and bilateral trade and investment.
In March, a commission set up by Macron concluded France was responsible for failing to act to halt the wave of killings in 1994, but was not complicit in the slaughter. The Rwandan government hailed the 1,200-page report by the historian Vincent Duclert as “an important step towards a common understanding of France’s role in the genocide”.
A second 600-page report commissioned by Rwanda and released by the US law firm Levy Firestone Muse last month was even more damning, branding France a “collaborator” of the Hutu regime that carried out the killings. It concluded France knew genocide was coming but remained “unwavering in its support” of the government.
“The French government was neither blind nor unconscious about the foreseeable genocide,” the report stated.
The Duclert Rwanda commission report is part of an initiative by Macron to push France to examine its colonial past. It followed a recent dossier submitted to the Elysée by the historian Benjamin Stora on the French military’s role in the Algerian war of independence. Stora has called for a “truth commission”.