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05.04.2019 Rwanda

Macron seeks to shine light on Rwanda genocide 25 years later

By Cécile FEUILLATRE, Clare BYRNE
Macron caused disappointment among genocide survivors by turning down an invitation to attend this weekend's genocide commemorations in Rwanda.  By PHILIPPE WOJAZER (POOL/AFP)
APR 5, 2019 RWANDA
Macron caused disappointment among genocide survivors by turning down an invitation to attend this weekend's genocide commemorations in Rwanda. By PHILIPPE WOJAZER (POOL/AFP)

French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday launched a bid to end a two-decade dispute with Rwanda over its 1994 genocide by appointing experts to shed light on the murky subject of France's actions in the country during the massacres.

In a major development marking the 25th anniversary of the genocide, in which over 800,000 mostly Tutsi people were slaughtered, the French leader announced the creation of a commission of historians and researchers that will delve into the state's archives.

The eight-strong team "will be tasked with consulting all France's archives relating to the genocide... in order to analyse the role and engagement of France during that period," the presidency said.

Rwanda accuses France of having supported the ethnic Hutu forces behind most of the killing and of helping some of the perpetrators to escape, allegations Paris rejects.

Friday's announcement was timed to coincide with a meeting between Macron and the Ibuka association of genocide survivors, the first such encounter with a French president.

It comes a little over six months after Macron threw open the archives on another controversial chapter in French history relating to the 1954-1962 independence war with former colony Algeria.

Over 800,000 mostly Tutsi people were slaughtered between April to July 1994, according to the UN.  By Jacques NKINZINGABO (AFP) Over 800,000 mostly Tutsi people were slaughtered between April to July 1994, according to the UN. By Jacques NKINZINGABO (AFP)

But it was unlikely to dispel the disappointment Macron caused among genocide survivors by turning down an invitation from Rwandan President Paul Kagame to attend this weekend's commemorations in Rwanda.

The presidency cited scheduling difficulties and sent a young MP of Rwandan origin instead.

Marcel Kabanda, the 62-year-old president of Ibuka France whose family was wiped out in the Rwandan genocide, hailed the creation of the commission as a "strong gesture".

But he also urged caution.

"We have often been disappointed, we have often been betrayed," referring to a 2015 promise by then president Francois Hollande to open the state's archives on the genocide which ended up being very limited in scope.

Hunting genocide suspects

The French presidency said historians would take two years to study the entire period from 1990 to 1994 to "contribute to a better understanding and knowledge of the genocide of Tutsis".

Rwandan President Paul Kagame (R) broke off ties with France between 2006 and 2009 but relations have improved over the past decade.  By ludovic MARIN (AFP) Rwandan President Paul Kagame (R) broke off ties with France between 2006 and 2009 but relations have improved over the past decade. By ludovic MARIN (AFP)

Their findings will be used in material used to teach children in France about the genocide, the presidency added.

The moves aim to definitively turn the page on quarter of a century of acrimony and mutual recrimination between France and Rwanda.

Paris has always denied being complicit in the genocide, saying that UN-mandated French soldiers deployed in Rwanda in the final weeks of the genocide did their best under difficult circumstances.

The perceived foot-dragging by France on bringing genocide suspects living in France to justice also aggravated the tensions.

Macron announced Friday he would boost the judicial unit in charge of investigating Rwandan genocide cases so that suspects "could be tried in a reasonable amount of time".

Confronting France's past

Franco-Rwandan relations hit their lowest point in 2006 after a French judge recommended that Kagame be prosecuted by a UN-backed tribunal over the 1994 killing of Rwanda's president Juvenal Habyarimana, a moderate Hutu whose death triggered the start of the genocide.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who led the Tutsi rebel force that eventually overthrew the genocidal Hutu regime, promptly broke off ties with France for three years.

The turning point came in 2010 when former president Nicolas Sarkozy acknowledged during a visit to Kigali that France had made "serious errors of judgement" in Rwanda.

Timeline with maps of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.  By Paz PIZARRO, Alain BOMMENEL (AFP) Timeline with maps of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. By Paz PIZARRO, Alain BOMMENEL (AFP)

While falling short of an apology it was seen as a breakthrough in Rwanda, a former Belgian colony which France had jealously defended before the genocide as part of its sphere of influence in Africa.

The relationship again hit turbulence under Hollande, but Macron's election set the stage for a new chapter.

During a visit to Paris last year Kagame praised the 41-year-old Frenchman for taking a "fresher", less paternalistic approach to Africa than his forerunners.

"It's a change from the neo-colonial positions of the past," he told Jeune Afrique magazine.

Macron has presented himself as the representative of a new generation of politician unafraid to shine a light on France's past.

Last September he acknowledged that France had instigated a system that facilitated torture during Algeria's 1954-1962 independence war, a conflict that also remains hugely emotive in France.

He also announced that France would open up its archives on the thousands of civilians and soldiers who went missing during that war.

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