Could France Soon Face a Public Reckoning Over its Role in the Rwandan Genocide?

On April 7, the International Day of Reflection on the Rwandan Genocide, France announced it was going to declassify a trove of documents from that era to help shed light on the events that unfolded over two decades ago.

This is a significant announcement for France, which is seen has having been more than an impartial arbiter or spectator of the events in 1994. As the world marked the 21st anniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide yesterday, this new information being made public represents another important milestone in our collective understanding of how the genocide unfolded. It may also expose old wounds that have undermined relations between Paris and Kigali ever since.

Much has been written, and certainly much has been said, about the genocide in Rwanda, and over time, our comprehension has become more nuanced but also more complex. As more and more archives and restricted documents emerge, the picture of what happened in Rwanda will become increasingly clear. A process that is both painful and important for survivors, and absolutely essential to the process of allowing a more truthful and accurate history to emerge.

Over the last two decades, many efforts have been made to better comprehend the dynamic of the French-Rwandan relationship, particularly the close relationship between their heads of state at the time, François Mitterrand and Juvenal Habyarimana, and how the French might have supported the Hutu regime in the early 1990s. Accusations have also been leveled against France regarding the deployment of its peacekeeping mission in June 1994, Operation Turquoise, and the reasons for which part of their effort was to help evacuate members of the Hutu regime – and, by consequence, people directly responsible for the genocide.

At this stage, we know that the documents that French President François Hollande announced would be declassified include files “from secret defense meetings and files from advisers to then-president Francois Mitterrand“, covering the period 1990-1995.  While we know that 80 documents were released in total, their content is, so far, unknown. Historians, survivors’ organizations and analysts will have to make formal requests through the national archives to obtain the newly-released documents, which, while they help further complete the puzzle of France’s involvement in Rwanda, also only represent a sliver of the archives from that time period. Nevertheless, the decision to declassify these documents from the Mitterrand presidency is a positive step forward for France as it seeks to come to terms with its controversial role in Rwanda.

Rwandan President Kagame has often accused France of bearing responsibility for the genocide, even remarking, during the 20th anniversary commemorations last year, that France had not only been complicit, but was “an actor” in the massacre of Tutsis. Indeed, there are still many grey areas regarding the actions of France, particularly with regards to its support for the Hutu regime, both before and immediately after the genocide. The limited and tightly controlled nature of the declassification, as well as the involvement and oversight by the Francois Mitterrand Institute, is a source of concern for some French analysts, who worry that key elements and information – particularly concerning President François Mitterrand’s direct and personal responsibility – will continue to be withheld.

While certainly there are many caveats to the release of these documents, the newly declassified documents will nevertheless further illuminate French policy vis-a-vis Rwanda in the early 90s, and be essential to furthering our common understanding of the genocide. Both in France and Rwanda, officials, historians and representatives from survivors’ organizations and other civil society groups, have reacted overall positively to the announcement – a positive outlook tempered by the fact that the content of these documents, and their exact nature, is still unknown. For many, what new, relevant information these documents reveal will be the yardstick with which to measure the value of this declassification.