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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.

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.


rance 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 committed 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 Ottoman Turks from 1915-17. Though the French have committed countless atrocities 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 ofwhom 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 cockroaches, with dreadful ferocity while the world, fully aware of the scale of the massacre, simply looked on. Many scholars 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 anomalous 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

ardent advocate of Hutu power, but also astute enough to recognise that he could lure France into supporting his dictatorship. 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 199194 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 documentation 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 responsible 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 participated 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 supporting 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 particularly 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 culture to people who aspire to make something 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 hierarchies, 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.



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Economic and Political Weekly February 10, 2007

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