ArticlePDF Available

Abstract

There is ample evidence of French culpability in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Yet, France acts as a model guardian of human values on the pretext that the exercise of France's civilising mission has sometimes compelled it to discipline recalcitrant natives for their own good.
Economic and Political Weekly February 10, 2007
480
Rwanda and
the Desperation of France
There is ample evidence of French culpability in the 1994
genocide in Rwanda. Yet, France acts as a model guardian of
human values on the pretext that the exercise of France’s civilising
mission has sometimes compelled it to discipline recalcitrant
natives for their own good.
VINAY LAL
France is at it again, posing as a
model guardian of human values
and purporting to set for the world
more stringent standards of culpability
for genocide and other grave crimes com-
mitted against humanity. First, in February
2005, the French national assembly passed
a bill, which requires school children to
be taught the “positive” role of the French
overseas, “notably in north Africa”. Then,
in October 2006, the assembly approved
the legislation – now awaiting approval
from the senate – which would make it a
criminal offence to deny that a genocide
of Armenians took place under the Otto-
man Turks from 1915-17. Though the
French have committed countless atroci-
ties in Haiti, Africa, Indochina, Algeria,
and elsewhere, all of that is overlooked on
the pretext that the exercise of France’s
civilising mission has sometimes compelled
it to discipline recalcitrant natives for their
own good. Now the target of the French
is Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda, and
nine other Rwandan officials, all of whom
stand accused by a French judge, Jean-
Louis Bruguiere, of having planned and
executed the assassination, on April 6,
1994, of then-Rwandan president, Juvenal
Habyarimana.
French Imperium and Genocide
However, if it sounds as though the
French are showing exemplary courage,
performing a noble duty from which other
nation states might perhaps shirk, issuing
to dictatorial and authoritarian leaders a
stern warning that the long hand of the law
will catch up to their evil misdeeds, then
one should consider that the French judge’s
report comes on the heels of an official
Rwandan inquiry – commenced last
October and expected to be completed in
the next few weeks – into the role played
by France in the genocide which took some
8,00,000 lives in Rwanda in 1994 and was
triggered by Habyarimana’s death. Those
killings of that cruel spring saw the Hutus
pounce upon the Tutsis, gleefully
characterised on radio broadcasts as cock-
roaches, with dreadful ferocity while the
world, fully aware of the scale of the
massacre, simply looked on. Many schol-
ars have commented on the particularities
of the Rwandan genocide: far from being
the outcome of a highly bureaucratic
machinery of death, it saw neighbours
pitted against neighbours, friends turning
upon friends. The victims were not herded
into distant camps, nor did the killers,
wielding mainly machetes, axes, and
spears, hide under the cloak of anonymity.
The genocide lasted a mere four months,
and large segments of state and civil
society partook of the killing. And,
keeping in mind the present dispute
between France and Rwanda, the French
were charged with having been deeply
implicated, not obviously as outright
perpetrators, in the killings.
Rwanda occupies a somewhat anoma-
lous place in “La Francafrique”, or what
we might call the French Imperium in
Africa. Rwanda was never a French colony,
ruled instead by the Belgians; its educated
classes and élites were French-speaking
and, upon independence in 1962, were
further drawn into the French cultural orbit.
The social revolution of 1959, which also
witnessed the first large-scale systematic
violence between the Hutus and Tutsis, led
to the erosion of Tutsi power at the local
level and the migration of Tutsi élites into
exile. Though the independence agreement
called for power-sharing between the Hutus
and Tutsis, which themselves are far from
being iron-clad identities and only acquired
a certain rigidity in the colonial period, a
Hutu dictatorship was firmly established.
Habyarimana, who engineered a coup and
assumed power in 1973, was not only an
Economic and Political Weekly February 10, 2007 481
ardent advocate of Hutu power, but also
astute enough to recognise that he could
lure France into supporting his dictator-
ship. France signed an agreement with
Rwanda in 1975 which forbids it from
taking part in Rwandan combat, training
or police operations, but the agreement
over the years was honoured mainly in the
breach, and in the critical period of 1991-
94 was expressly and consistently violated
by France. Habyarimana enjoyed a close
personal relationship with the French
president, Francois Mitterand, and his son,
and went about his business on a plane
gifted to him by Mitterand.
Things came to a head when Paul Kagame,
whose affinity for the Anglophone world
runs deep, led his Rwandan Patriotic Front
(RPF), comprised of Tutsi exiles eager to
return to their homeland, in an invasion
of Rwanda. France immediately backed
Habyarimana, and there is ample docu-
mentation to support the view that France
offered a constant stream of arms to the
Hutu forces, helped in interrogation of
RPF prisoners, and trained members of the
ruthless militia known as the ‘interahamwe’.
Indeed, as the killings mounted in the spring
of 1994, French armaments poured into the
hands of the Hutu killers at a frenzied pace,
and French military spokespersons aired
the idea that the RPF was as much respon-
sible for the killings as the Hutus and
constituted a ‘khmer noir’. A RPF press
release at that time sought to “remind the
international community that these French
troops not only participate in the president’s
efforts to make war, but also train the
security agents who are responsible for the
genocide that has been taking place in
Rwanda”. Kagame has since held firm to
the view that French complicity in the
killings is profound, and on his visit to
Britain last month affirmed that “it’s France
that supported the genocidal forces, that
trained them, that armed them, that par-
ticipated in fighting against the forces that
were trying to stop the genocide”. As he
told the BBC, “France did not at any one
time attempt to stop the genocide. On the
contrary, they actually participated in the
period leading to that genocide in support-
ing the government of Rwanda.”
Waning French Influence
What is there in this dispute between
France and a tiny country in central Africa
that has created such anxiety in official
French circles? Is Rwanda of any intrinsic
interest to the French, or is the conflict a
sign of some larger shifts in contemporary
culture and geopolitics? America lures
people to its shore with the promise of the
“American Dream” and the possibility of
economic advancement, but more so than
any other country, France has long thrived
on its aura. Though American populism,
for instance, has a disdainful attitude
towards things French, captured as much
in Donald Rumsfeld’s dismissal of France
as “old Europe” as in the biting jokes about
French pompousness on popular TV shows
and right-wing radio, white Americans with
a modicum of pretension to be cultured
still use “French culture” as the most reliable
barometer of sophistication. And, yet,
French influence has indisputably been
waning around the world. As an imperial
power, France was assigned a permanent
seat in the Security Council, but scarcely
anyone outside the Francophone world has
any time for France these days, except, as
is the case with Britain, as a charming
tourist destination. In the early days of the
European Union (EU), the Franco-German
writ extended very far, but it is a telling
sign of the times that virtually all of the
new EU members over the last decade have
opted for English as the second language.
Chinese is rapidly becoming the second
language of choice for students already
conversant in English. Of course, the French
may claim that they have always exercised
soft power, swaying the world with their
literature, cinema and philosophers. But,
to take one example, the French cinema
of Godard, Bresson, Rohmer, Truffaut and
Chabrol is distinctly a thing of the past,
and discussions of Iranian cinema are far
more common among film aficionados than
of French cinema. Though the French
complain of the creeping influence of
America upon their lives, France is one of
the most lucrative world markets for
McDonalds (with 1,300 restaurants),
Starbucks and other American-owned
chains.
Some might submit that talk of the decline
of the French is premature. Apart from
French peacekeeping, “humanitarian”, and
coalition missions in Kosovo, Bosnia-
Herzegovina, Afghanistan and Iraq, there
are French troops in the Central African
Republic, the Ivory Coast, and Chad. But
once one recognises that the French play
second fiddle to the Americans, we are left
with the EU and Francophone Africa as
territories that France views as falling
within its sphere of influence. It is here that
the apostasy of Rwanda appears particu-
larly distressing to the French. They have
been inclined to view Rwanda, a former
Belgian colony, as a particularly endearing
example of the attractions of French cul-
ture to people who aspire to make some-
thing of themselves; and now Rwanda,
which has severed diplomatic relations with
France, has delivered a stinging rebuke to
France. There has been much else to rock
the boat of French self-righteousness, from
the riots of the last couple of years to the
disclosures, in the acclaimed film, Days
of Glory (Indigenes, 2006), by the French-
Algerian director, Rachid Bouchareb,
about the still unrecognised role of
3,00,000 African soldiers – Algerians,
Moroccans, Tunisians, sub-Saharan
Africans – in liberating France during the
second world war.
France has long thought of itself as
spearheading the struggle for liberty,
equality, and fraternity. It may have gifted
to the world, as it imagines, fine perfumes,
wines, lingerie, films, and literature, but
there is an assumption that its greatest
contribution to the modern narrative of
human liberation from oppression is to
have brought the light of civilisation to less
fortunate people. One response to such
overweening pride was given by chairman
Mao, who, when asked what he thought
of the French revolution, is said to have
replied, “It’s too early too tell”. In Paul
Kagame and Rwanda’s spirited response
to the French lie the prospects for another
kind of historical retelling which was long
the preserve of Europeans. In conducting
an official inquiry into France’s conduct,
Rwanda has reversed the moral hierar-
chies, appropriated the European’s language,
and taken the coloniser’s law to the
colonisers. France now has to be thinking
about where the rest of Francophone
Africa, its own backyard to speak, may be
going and whether even the outer shell of
the French Imperium will remain in the
near future.
Email: vlal@history.ucla.edu
EPW
Economic and Political Weekly
available at
Sundar News Agents
(Magazine Market)
158 D N Road, Shop No 6
Near Kelkar Hotel, Fort
Mumbai 400 001
... Habyarimana, which triggered the occurrence of genocide tragedy in 1994 that had killed approximately 800.000 Tutsi lives (Lal, 2007). Contrasting to the Hutu, Tutsi people who had been fleeing into exile--to Rwanda's neighboring countries such as Uganda and Tanzania--were contrary and not in line with France's previous determination as it had been with the Hutu government. ...
Article
Full-text available
This article aims to examine Rwanda's foreign policy decision to join the British Commonwealth. Rwanda was former French colony and has historic association with Francophone countries. But the country decided to join the British Commonwealth in 2009. Using theory of foreign policy decision making, it argues that the shift of Rwanda’s foreign policy was caused by the political transition in Rwanda’s domestic politics, its economy condition in the post-genocide epoch as well as the international context which included Rwanda’s geographic position and the role of the United Kingdom in aiding Rwanda’s state-building in the aftermath of the genocide. This research uses qualitative method and uses secondary data such as, books, articles, journals, e-news, reports and other library sources.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any references for this publication.