The 1994 genocide in Rwanda claimed more than 800,000 lives, sparked years of violent unrest in central Africa and poisoned French-Rwandan relations so severely that Kigali, the Rwandan capital, suspended diplomatic ties with Paris in 2006 and replaced French with English in Rwandan schools. So when French President Nicolas Sarkozy came into power in 2007, he made repairing relations with Rwanda and clearing up the lingering suspicions and accusations surrounding the genocide a major foreign-policy priority. During his visit to Rwanda this week, he appeared to turn a page in the countries' relations by acknowledging that France had committed "grave errors of judgment" in responding to the Hutu slaughter of minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
"What happened here obliges the international community including France to reflect on the errors which prevented us from foreseeing, or stopping, this appalling crime," Sarkozy said Thursday, Feb. 25, in Kigali, marking a break with France's unwavering position that it acted rapidly to halt the massacre. "Errors of appreciation, political errors were committed here, which had absolutely tragic consequences. What happened here is a defeat for humanity."
Other Western leaders previously admitted that their countries failed to adequately respond to the genocide, most notably former U.S. President Bill Clinton's solemn apology in 1998. So why was Sarkozy's relatively mild mea culpa so significant especially when it stopped short of an actual act of contrition?
First, it showed just how far Sarkozy was prepared to go to "construct a new relation of confidence" with Rwanda by breaking with France's past position of irreproachability in the slaughter. Until now, the official French line has been that Paris reacted quickly to the crisis by leading a U.N.-sanctioned peacekeeping mission called Operation Turquoise to halt the killings. France has also flatly refuted claims by Tutsi militia leaders who took power in Rwanda after the genocide and still form the basis of the Rwandan government that French forces serving as advisers in the country in the early 1990s actually assisted the then ruling Hutus in the massacre.
France's change of position is also an indication of how important Sarkozy views Rwanda in his efforts to radically revise French strategy toward Africa. For the past 40 years, Paris has dealt with its former African colonies under an interventionist policy called Françafrique, under which France propped up client regimes in Africa in order to maintain its political and business interests on the continent. Now Sarkozy is looking to loosen France's heavy political and military commitments in Africa and pass the responsibilities of maintaining security to a group of stable and reliable partners in the region. As a central power in a long-troubled region, Rwanda is a main pillar in Sarkozy's strategy.
"He wants to recenter and strengthen these relations on economic and business ties in Africa especially to counter China's big advances and Rwanda is vital to that," says Pap Ndiaye, a specialist in black history in Europe, Africa and the U.S. at the School of Advanced Social Science Studies in Paris. "Despite his early promises to change France's relationships with Africa, he's mostly kept Françafrique intact. His very significant gesture to restore relations with Rwanda may prove the first real move towards change."
But for that tenuous partnership to blossom, Sarkozy must deal with the lingering consequences of the 1994 massacre. Foremost among those is the continued presence in France of more than a dozen Rwandan genocide suspects whom Rwandan President Paul Kagame wants tried before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Apparently signaling its willingness to respect the Rwandan demands, France last month arrested a Rwandan doctor and alleged war criminal, Sosthene Munyemana, who is wanted in Rwanda for the slaughter of Tutsis in the city of Butare. "This issue was without doubt central to all the negotiations prior to Sarkozy's visit and during his talks there," Ndiaye says. "It's a very important legal matter but also a critically symbolic topic for Rwanda ... like Sarkozy's admission of error in dealing with the genocide."
Still, it won't bury another bone of contention: the arrest warrants that have been issued by a French investigating judge for several members of former Tutsi militias who now sit in Rwanda's government. The men are suspected of having shot down the plane of the nation's President, a Hutu, in 1994 an attack that sparked the genocide, which, in turn, allowed the Tutsis to reclaim power. The judge's inquiry, which seeks to determine if the Tutsi militias could have engineered the massacre of their own people in a Machiavellian scheme to take control, is what prompted Kigali to break ties with Paris in 2006.
These claims and counterclaims remain a dividing point between the countries. And to be sure, accused killers on both sides of the conflict remain free despite international warrants for their arrest. So while Sarkozy's humble mission to Rwanda is being seen as a good start toward reconciliation, it remains to be seen whether the trip will bear any real fruit and if it will lead to France finally burying Françafrique and forging a new relationship with Africa.