April 7, 2014 5:19 pm

France and Rwanda at loggerheads on 20th anniversary of genocide

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Photographs of people who were killed during the 1994 genocide are seen inside the Kigali Genocide Memorial Museum as the country prepares to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the genocide in the Rwandan capital Kigali April 5, 2014. An estimated 800,000 people were killed in 100 days during the genocide. REUTERS/Noor Khamis (RWANDA - Tags: ANNIVERSARY POLITICS)©Reuters

Painstaking efforts to heal the deep divisions between France and Rwanda over French actions during the Rwandan genocide have been severely set back by an angry diplomatic dispute on the 20th anniversary of the massacres.

Kigali barred France’s ambassador from attending the genocide commemorations in the Rwandan capital on Monday in response to Paris’s decision to cancel the planned participation of the French justice minister in protest at published remarks by Paul Kagame, Rwandan president.

Mr Kagame accused France in an interview with Jeune Afrique magazine, published in France, of having played a “direct role in the preparations for the genocide . . . and in its execution”.

The allegation infuriated the political establishment in Paris, which has always denied any involvement in the 1994 mass killing of Tutsis and Hutu moderates by the then Hutu regime – although it has acknowledged serious errors of judgment in the actions of French diplomats and forces on the ground at the time.

Alain Juppé, foreign minister at the time, called on President François Hollande to “defend the honour of France” against Mr Kagame’s remarks. A statement from Mr Hollande acknowledged the genocide happened despite “the world knowing and not preventing it”. But he made no reference to the allegations of French culpability.

Bernard Kouchner, a former foreign minister who in 2010 initiated the drive to rebuild relations with Rwanda, said: “You can accuse France of many political errors that were made and the way it was handled for sure . . . but direct participation, I do not believe it.”

Rwanda has sought to highlight the deliberate failure of the international community to intervene during the genocide. However, it has reserved particular opprobrium for France, which it has accused of supporting the Hutu government which discriminated against Tutsis in the lead up to the genocide, evacuating members of prominent Hutu families and even training the Hutu militia.

Former president Nicolas Sarkozy recognised “serious errors of judgment” and “a kind of blindness” by France over the issue when he visited Kigali in 2010.

France played “ a direct role in the preparations for the genocide . . . and in its execution”

- Paul Kagame, Rwandan president

Last month a French court sentenced Pascal Simbikangwa, a former Rwandan intelligence officer, to 25 years in prison for his part in the genocide. It was the first trial of its kind in France, now home to a number of former Hutu figures, including Agathe Habyarimana, wife of former president Juvénal Habyarimana whose death sparked the 1994 genocide.

But Mr Kagame’s comments triggered calls in Paris for a fuller investigation of the episode.

“Twenty years after the extermination of the Tutsi, it is more than time for our country to shine a full light on its policy and the action of its soldiers on the ground during the last genocide of the 20th century,” wrote Le Monde newspaper in an editorial.

The bitter relations with France contrast with Rwanda’s healed ties with the UN. Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary-general, lit a flame to honour the dead during Monday’s commemoration and heaped praise on Rwanda’s recovery.

Some Rwanda watchers say criticising France helps Mr Kagame, an authoritarian leader, to redirect attention from increasing outside criticism of his regime for suppressing opposition at home and pursuing dissenters abroad.

Several senior figures in Rwanda’s security apparatus have defected in recent years, some of whom have since been killed or faced threats on their life. The US, one of its staunchest backers, has expressed concern in recent months over remarks by Mr Kagame that traitors face “consequences”.

You can accuse France of many political errors that were made and the way it was handled for sure . . . but direct participation, I do not believe it

- Bernard Kouchner, former French foreign minister

Rwanda’s government has sets great store in guarding its own narrative of the genocide and the causes of it. Rwandan latest school textbooks, which were revised last year, emphasise the role of the French in the past of supporting the Hutu regime that authorised murderous discrimination against Tutsi.

The Tutsi guerrilla leaders who ended the genocide, including Mr Kagame, grew up in the refugee camps of English-speaking Uganda. After the genocide, he made English an official language and changed the language of teaching from French and Kinyarwanda to English. Today many Rwandan students speak English better than their teachers who instruct them in faltering English with French accents.

The purge against French influence continues. Although French is still an official language, the opposition Democratic Green Party has said Rwanda has broken the constitution by phasing French out of bank notes, tax returns and identity papers.

Rwanda, a former Belgian colony, also joined the British Commonwealth in 2009, underling the anglophone shift.

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