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RWANDA

‘Blind’ France bears responsibility in Rwanda genocide, report says

France bears overwhelming responsibilities over the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and was "blind" to preparations for the massacres, a report by historians said Friday - while adding there was no evidence Paris was complicit in the killings.

'Blind' France bears responsibility in Rwanda genocide, report says
French President François Mitterrand (L) speaks with his Rwandan counterpart Juvenal Habyarimana on his arrival in Kigali, 10 December 1984. Photo: George S Gobet/AFP

A historical commission set up by President Emmanuel Macron concluded there had been a “failure” on the part of France under former leader Francois Mitterrand over the genocide that saw around 800,000 people slaughtered, mainly from the ethnic Tutsi minority.

Historian Vincent Duclert, who heads the commission, handed over the damning report to Macron at the Elysee Palace after years of accusations France did not do enough to halt the massacres and was even complicit in the crimes.

The genocide between April and July of 1994 began after Rwanda’s Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana, with whom Paris had cultivated close ties, was killed when his plane was shot down over Kigali on April 6.

The issue still poisons modern relations a quarter of a century later between France and Rwanda under its controversial President Paul Kagame, a former Tutsi rebel who has ruled the mountainous nation in Africa’s Great Lakes region since the aftermath of the genocide.

“Is France an accomplice to the genocide of the Tutsi? If by this we mean a willingness to join a genocidal operation, nothing in the archives that were examined demonstrates this,” the report’s conclusions said.

“Nevertheless, for a long time, France was involved with a regime that encouraged racist massacres… It remained blind to the preparation of a genocide by the most radical elements of this regime.”

It criticised the French authorities under Mitterrand for adopting a “binary view” that set Habyarimana as an “Hutu ally” against an “enemy” of Tutsi forces backed by Uganda, and then offering military intervention only “belatedly” when it was too late to halt the genocide.

“The research therefore establishes a set of responsibilities, both serious and overwhelming,” it said.

READ ALSO: Macron proposes day of commemoration for Rwanda genocide

‘Personal relationship’

Macron, who ordered the creation of the commission in May 2019, welcomed the report as marking “considerable progress” in understanding France’s role in Rwanda from 1990 to 1994.

The Elysee said it hoped the report would mark an “irreversible” reconciliation process between France and Rwanda, which Macron has said he wants to visit this year.

France notably led Operation Turquoise, a military-humanitarian intervention launched under a UN mandate in June 1994. Its critics believe that it was in reality aimed at supporting the genocidal Hutu government.

And there have also been repeated accusations that authorities in Paris helped suspects in the Rwanda genocide to escape while under French military protection.

The report concluded that in July 1994, “murderers but also the masterminds of the genocide” were in a safe zone established by French forces in the west of the country “who the French political authorities refused to arrest”.

Socialist Mitterrand and his inner circle were also fearful of the encroachment of English-speaking influence into francophone Africa by Uganda and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) of Kagame.

The report tells of French decision-makers trapped in “post-colonial” thinking who supported the “racist, corrupt and violent” regime of Habyarimana as he faced a Tutsi rebellion which many considered was directed from English-speaking Uganda.

Mitterrand “maintained a strong, personal and direct relationship with the Rwandan head of state”, it said.

“Hovering over Rwanda was the threat of an Anglo-Saxon world, represented by the RPF and Uganda, as well as their international allies.”

French authorities behaved as if “acting in the face of a genocide was not in the realm of possibility” when there was a “moral obligation” to ensure genocides never happen again, it said.

Tackling taboos

The 15-member commission did not have any specialist on Rwanda, a move the French presidency argued was necessary to ensure complete neutrality.

But the historians — who include experts on the Holocaust, the massacres of Armenians in World War I and international criminal law — were given access to archives including those of Mitterrand himself, which were long closed off to researchers.

While he seeks to position France as an assertive player on the world stage, Macron has taken tentative steps to come to terms with once taboo aspects of the country’s historical record, though many would like to see far bolder moves.

Historian Benjamin Stora, who was tasked with examining France’s actions during Algeria’s war of independence, called for a “truth commission” and other conciliatory actions in a major report delivered in January.

Macron has ruled out an official apology for torture and other abuses carried out by French troops in Algeria.

READ ALSO: French forces tortured and murdered Algerian freedom fighter in 1950s, admits Macron

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FRENCH HISTORY

French history myths: France only sent one Statue of Liberty to the US

You might already know that New York's Lady Liberty was a gift from France, but did you know she is far from the only Liberty figure, and not even the only one to have travelled from France to the United States?

French history myths: France only sent one Statue of Liberty to the US

Myth: The French have only sent the Americans one Statue of Liberty

It is likely common knowledge that the United States’ iconic 93-metre-tall Lady Liberty is actually French in origin, gifted to the USA to mark 100 years since American independence.

But you might not realise that the New York City monument is not the only one the French have gifted to the United States.

In 2021, another – this time smaller – Statue of Liberty travelled to New York from France.

This replica was also meant to be a symbol of French-American friendship. Having previously been on display in Paris with the National Conservatory of Arts and Crafts, the statue travelled across the Atlantic to the United States in June of 2021. It eventually made its way from New York to Washington DC, where it went on display at the French ambassador’s residence for Bastille Day. It will remain there until 2031.

The conservatory told CNN that sending the statue to the United States was meant to “send a very simple message: Our friendship with the United States is very important, particularly at this moment. We have to conserve and defend our friendship.”

The original statue stands as the third tallest in the world, but she is not the only Lady Liberty in the world. The second-most famous Statue of Liberty was actually gifted to the French by Americans, specifically those living in Paris. Only a fourth of the height of the original, the Statue stands on the Île de Cygnes in the Seine river in Paris, facing westward toward the New York statue.

Several other replicas – at least 100 of them – exist across the world. There are several of them in France alone, and if you want to find them you can plan your Lady Liberty road trip by clicking HERE.

READ MORE: Where to find France’s 12 Statues of Liberty

The original Statue of Liberty also represents more than just the shared friendship between the United States and France.

French historian Édouard de Laboulaye came up with the idea for the statue and made the proposal for it in 1865. While the statue was intended to be a gift to strengthen the relationship between the two countries, Laboulaye was also an anti-slavery activist and avid supporter of the Union during the Civil War. He hoped that the statue would represent liberty and symbolise the freedom of thought repressed under Napoleon III’s regime. 

Eventually, it was sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi who brought the statue to life (reputedly modelled her face on his mother) helped by a famous engineer known for another and tall structure – Gustave Eiffel.

The statue was intended to mark 100 years since the American declaration of independence in 1776, but initially only the torch-bearing arm was displayed, the full statute was not finally completed for another 10 years and was dedicated in 1886.

This article is part of our August series on myths and misconceptions from French history.

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