France opens its archives on Rwandan genocide to the public

A memorial to the thousands who were killed during the 1994 genocide, outside a church in Ntarama, Rwanda, on April 5, 2019. © Ben Curtis, AP (file photo)

France’s role before and during the 1994 Rwandan genocide was a “monumental failure” that the country must acknowledge, the lead author of a report commissioned by President Emmanuel Macron said, as the country opens its archives from this period to the public on Wednesday.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame on Wednesday welcomed the report as “an important step toward a common understanding of what took place”.

Speaking at an anniversary ceremony marking the start of the genocide, Kagame, in his first public response to the report, said, “it shows the desire, even for leaders in France, to move forward with a good understanding of what happened”.

The report, published in March, concluded that French authorities remained blind to the preparations for genocide as they supported the “racist” and “violent” government of then-Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana and then reacted too slowly in appreciating the extent of the killings. But it cleared them of complicity in the slaughter that left over 800,000 people dead, mainly ethnic Tutsis and the Hutus who tried to protect them.

Macron’s decision to commission the report — and open the archives to the public — are part of his efforts to more fully confront the French role in the genocide and to improve relations with Rwanda, including making April 7, the day the massacre began, a day of commemoration. While long overdue, the moves may finally help the two countries reconcile.

Historian Vincent Duclert, who led the commission that studied France’s actions in Rwanda between 1990 and 1994, told The Associated Press that “for 30 years, the debate on Rwanda was full of lies, violence, manipulations, threats of trials. That was a suffocating atmosphere”.

Duclert said it was important to acknowledge France’s role for what it was: a “monumental failure”.

“Now we must speak the truth,” he added. “And that truth will allow, we hope, (France) to get a dialogue and a reconciliation with Rwanda and Africa.”

Macron said in a statement that the report marks “a major step forward” toward understanding France’s actions in Rwanda.

Documents show colonial views drove policy failures

About 8,000 archive documents that the commission examined for two years, including some that were previously classified, will be made accessible to the general public starting Wednesday, the 27th anniversary of the start of the killings.

Duclert said documents — mostly from the French presidency and the prime minister’s office — show how then-president François Mitterrand and the small group of diplomats and military officials surrounding him shared views inherited from colonial times, including the desire to maintain influence on a French-speaking country, that led them to keep supporting Habyarimana despite warning signs, including through delivery of weapons and military training in the years prior to the genocide.

“Instead of ultimately supporting the democratisation and peace in Rwanda, the French authorities in Rwanda supported the ethnicisation, the radicalisation of (Habyarimana’s) government,” Duclert stressed.

France was “not complicit in the criminal act of genocide”, he said, but “its action contributed to strengthening (the genocide’s) mechanisms”.

“And that’s an enormous intellectual responsibility,” he said.

Historian Hélène Dumas noted that while the findings of the report were well known it marked an important step in France’s official recognition of its failures in Rwanda in the 1990s.

“The report puts into words a knowledge that was already solid, thanks to the important work done by activists and organisations to shed light on the shadowy areas of France’s role in Rwanda, and to the commitment of French researchers who focused their efforts on the history of the genocide,” said Dumas in an interview with FRANCE 24.

Dumas also welcomed the opening of France’s Rwanda archives after years of years of efforts by French scholars and researchers. “Any archive that is made accessible to researchers is necessarily good news,” she said.

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