It had been six months since the new French president had settled into the Élysée Palace. On 28 November 2017, Emmanuel Macron was visiting the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso. Before an amphitheatre of students, he said: “France no longer has an African policy.”
This is part 6 of an 8-part series
It was 27 May 2021. The French president arrived in the Rwandan capital, eager to finally start healing the deleterious relationship between Paris and Kigali. He had inherited this poisoned chalice from the Mitterrand years and, for a long time, it had been fuelled by the controversy surrounding France’s role in the genocide of the Tutsis.
“Ijoro ribara uwariraye”. It was with this maxim that Emmanuel Macron began his speech that day, soon after his arrival in Kigali. At the Gisozi memorial, dedicated to the victims of the genocide committed over one hundred days against one million Tutsi civilians exterminated for their ethnicity, the French president chose to borrow the first sentence of his speech from from Kinyarwanda, the national language, translated for the occasion: “Only those who have lived through that night can tell the story.”
It was a laborious effort, the writing of this sensitive speech, to be delivered in the shrine where the remains of several thousand anonymous victims of the genocide perpetrated against the Tutsis from April-July 1994 rest. “For part of the night, he reworked the text with his advisers,” said a protagonist who was on the presidential plane from Paris to Kigali.
The general and the teenager
In addition to the French delegation composed of invited officials and business leaders were two people seemingly with nothing in common, sitting a few rows apart and illustrating the sea change that had given birth to a renewed relationship between Paris and Kigali. On one side was the 87-year-old French general Jean Varret. He had long since retired and, despite the four stars visible on his uniform, had been consumed with bitterness over his last field operation in 1993. From 1990 to 1993, in Paris, he had been head of the military cooperation mission, at a time when the situation in Rwanda – armed rebels seeking to take control of a French ally – was at the top of the Élysée’s agenda.
Unlike other officers serving under the tricolour flag, blinded by a war that dared not speak its name in the heart of Africa’s Great Lakes Region, Varret had observed the shadow of genocide beginning to rear its head in the plans of President Juvénal Habyarimana’s regime and was affected by it. His attempts to alert army headquarters in Paris had proved futile. So much so that he preferred to leave ‘la Grande Muette’ [the Great Mute, a nickname for the French army, so called for its members’ prohibition from sharing their opinions on societal, political or sensitive matters in public] before the end of his career.
A few metres away from Varret was Annick Kayitesi-Jozan. On 7 April 1994, when the genocide began, she was still a teenager preparing to celebrate her birthday on 28 May. “I celebrated my 15th birthday alone, after the death of my mother, my little brother and other members of my family,” she told us. “In 2017, I published an article in French daily Libération in the form of an open letter to Emmanuel Macron, who had commemorated the Oradour-sur-Glane massacre 100 days earlier. And I had sent him, at the Élysée Palace, the text of this letter as well as the book I had just published: Même Dieu ne veut pas s’en n mêler [Even God doesn’t want to get involved].”
No reaction from the president for four years. Until the day in May 2021 when Kayitesi-Jozan – who has been living in Uzbekistan since 2015 but was staying in Brittany at the time – received an email from the Élysée Palace around midnight informing her that President Macron wanted to include her in his trip to Kigali. “I was both happy that this trip was taking place and honoured to be invited. Because ever since I met Raphaël Glucksmann, David Hazan and Pierre Mezerette for the occasion of their film ‘Tuez-les tous!’ [‘Kill them All’] about France’s role in Rwanda, we’ve more or less repeated the same thing,” she said.
…But when I arrived in France, after having managed to escape Rwanda via Burundi, I discovered that the world knew but had done nothing for us.
On leaving the Gisozi memorial, the retired general and the young writer, the only representative within the presidential delegation of the Rwandan community in France, found themselves side by side in the same vehicle. There, they connected quietly, sharing few words, both knowing well the weight of the painful memories that had brought them together: “We remained rather silent and observant,” said Kayitesi-Jozan.
In the early hours of the morning, an hour before the presidential plane landed, Macron summoned Kayitesi-Jozan and asked her point-blank: “What do you want from me?”
“I answered that at the time of the genocide, what kept us alive was telling ourselves that the world would find out and then come to our rescue,” said the genocide survivor. “But when I arrived in France, after having managed to escape Rwanda via Burundi, I discovered that the world knew but had done nothing for us,” she said. Her short speech to Emmanuel Macron ended up drowned in tears.
Louise Mushikiwabo as symbol
The unlikely tête-à-tête between Annick Kayitesi-Jozan and General Jean Varret was the result of diplomatic efforts on the Franco-Rwandan relationship made by Macron since his election in May 2017. The opening initiated by Nicolas Sarkozy between 2007 and 2012 – a brief official visit of the French president to Kigali in February 2010, followed by a “work” trip by Paul Kagame to Paris in September 2011 – had effectively been succeeded a long diplomatic freeze during the mandate of François Hollande, giving the impression that everything had to be started over.
In addition to a few informal visits by Kagame to Paris, such as during the VivaTech trade fair in May 2019, Macron had made a symbolic move, seen as a sacrilege by the detractors of the Rwandan regime: it was he, in fact, who had initiated – and then successfully supported – the appointment of the former Rwandan minister of foreign affairs and cooperation, Louise Mushikiwabo, as head of the International Organisation of Francophonie (OIF). It was a bold casting choice, given that Kigali’s detractors in France never fail to point out the important place now taken up by English in this country once described as French-speaking – and which had, moreover, joined the Commonwealth in 2009.
A few months later, a new symbolic step was taken by the French head of state. “It was in February 2019 that I was approached by Franck Paris, President Macron’s Africa advisor, at the Macron’s request,” says historian Vincent Duclert, who chaired the commission for research on the French archives relating to Rwanda and the Tutsi genocide. “The observation we made was that it was necessary to make progress on the historical dimension of France’s role in Rwanda, before and during the genocide.”
This teacher-researcher, who has chaired the Centre d’étude sociologique et politique Raymond-Aron (French research centre for sociological and political studies) since 2017, is above all a specialist in the Dreyfus affair. But he has also chaired, since 2016, a research mission to study and teach the history of genocide and mass crimes, which delivered its report in 2018.
According to Duclert, who had personally surveyed the unstable ground of the Franco-Rwandan relationship from the sidelines, understanding the historical dimension of this issue was to fill the space left vacant by Nicolas Sarkozy, who, despite the symbolic rapprochement with Rwanda during his five-year term, had not dared to mess with history. “In order to restore trust between our two countries, the decision was therefore made to suspend political time in favour of scientific time,” the historian added.
It would take two years for the 15 or so members of the commission (two of whom would not complete their mandate), after painstakingly combing through several thousand documents from the French archives, to submit their voluminous report on 26 March, 2021. A few days later, Rwanda completed the picture with a parallel report on the same subject, entrusted by Kigali to a New York law firm: the Muse report.
On the eve of these crossing shots, the Élysée was worried, said a source who prefers to remain anonymous. What would the Rwandan report contain? Would it run counter to the Duclert commission’s report? Would the history of Franco-Rwandan relations once again wind up with two antagonistic visions?
The long-awaited answer came on 19 April 2021 from Rwandan minister of foreign affairs Vincent Biruta. Interviewed by Le Monde on the occasion of the release of the Muse report, he clearly stated that Kigali’s position was one of appeasement. Had France officially been complicit in the 1994 genocide? “I think that France did not participate in the planning of the genocide and that the French did not participate in the killings and [other] abuses. France, as a state, did not do that. If complicity is defined by what I have just said, then the French state is not complicit,” the minister replied, assuring in passing that “the Rwandan government will not bring this issue before a court [of law]”.
This statement was the antithesis to the assertions contained in the report by the Mucyo Commission in 2008, which accused Paris of having “participated in the main initiatives for the preparation of the genocide [and] in the execution of the genocide”. And so the Rwandan government assumed its desire to put out the diplomatic fire that had been spreading since 2004, due to the investigation of judge Bruguière pinpointing Paul Kagame and several of his relatives in the attack on Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane.
“The teams involved – Franck Paris, on the French side, and Vincent Biruta, on the Rwandan side – proved to be very effective in sealing an act of peace and reconciliation,” said Vincent Duclert. According to the researcher, Macron’s Kigali speech was a concrete expression of this desire to cross the figurative Cape Horn of the Franco-Rwandan rift, all without running aground.
According to Etienne Nsanzimana, the president of the Ibuka-France association of genocide survivors, “a very clear shift has indeed been seen from the Élysée side over the past three years.” On 5 April 2019, the eve of the commemoration of the genocide, a delegation from the association was received by President Macron. And in April 2021, ministers Jean-Yves Le Drian and Jean-Michel Blanquer represented the French Republic at the Parc de Choisy and then at the Shoah Memorial in Paris, on the occasion of the ceremonies marking the 27th commemoration of the genocide perpetrated against the Tutsis.
Kagame’s two requests
“There was no unanimous position within Ibuka-France on the Duclert report,” says Etienne Nsanzimana, while noting that “the work is very rich and its conclusions are very strong”. The association therefore found it difficult to adopt a common reaction when it came to publicly commenting on the researchers’ work, even though Ibuka-Rwanda welcomed Vincent Duclert during his stay in the “land of a thousand hills” in early April 2021.
The historian came to hand over his commission’s report to President Paul Kagame, after having obtained his colleagues’ approval. “I went as a researcher. It was a scientific and not a diplomatic process,” said Vincent Duclert.
In the village of Urugwiro, at the headquarters of the Rwandan presidency, Paul Kagame listened to the historian summarise the main lines of the report before taking the floor. He then explained how the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and then the regime that came to power in July 1994 worked to deal with the genocide, first through armed struggle and then through a titanic effort to bring about justice.
The president then delivered two personal requests to his guest. The first concerned the identity and motives of the person or persons who had orchestrated his own arrest during a visit to Paris in September 1991, at the invitation of the French authorities of the time. Arrested in the early hours of the morning in his room at the Hilton Hotel, Avenue de Suffren, like a gangster on the run, Paul Kagame was then held in police custody for 24 hours before being released.
The other request addressed to Vincent Duclert concerned an old friendship, forged in Kansas in the early 1990s with a French officer who had come to the United States, as he had, to participate in a training course at a US Army complex. Paul Kagame – who was then part of the Ugandan army’s general staff – and the Frenchman Eric de Stabenrath had become friends. Until the morning in October 1990 when the Rwandan exile had vanished, the day after the first RPF offensive, in order to join the rebellion whose commander-in-chief, Fred Rwigema, had just died during the second day of fighting.
Vincent Duclert fulfilled the president’s wish to find his former comrade and went even further. With the endorsement of Macron’s Africa advisor, who encouraged him to handle this invitation himself, Duclert brought together at the Péninsula Hotel in Paris – where Paul Kagame was staying in May 2021 for a summit on Sudan and another devoted to African economies – a group of French officers and diplomats who had served in Rwanda between 1990 and 1993, when the country was drifting towards genocide. An informal and unprecedented meeting, reported by us, which augured that Macron’s official trip to Kigali, ten days later, would be placed under favourable auspices.
On this occasion, the French president knew that he would be expected to make a decision: would he apologise for the genocide on behalf of France during his Gisozi speech? On 27 May 2021, as the presidential plane began its descent into Kigali, Annick Kayitesi-Jozan confided in the head of state: “I don’t know whether or not you will apologise, but as a survivor, I know that what was taken from us cannot be returned. The important thing is to keep the memory of the genocide alive”.
“There was no apology or real word of repentance regarding the role of the French army in Rwanda, but Emmanuel Macron was able to find the right tone, which touched many Rwandans,” said Etienne Nsanzimana.
As for General Jean Varret, during a lunch with the African director of the ministry of foreign affairs, Macron’s chief of staff and the Rwandan defence minister, he was invited to join Paul Kagame. “I told him how impressed I was by the evolution of the country,” said the officer. “President Macron then interrupted me to ask me how I had found his speech in Gisozi. I replied: ‘Mr President, you did not use the word ‘apology’ and I thank you for that. The military would have taken it very badly. Officers in the second section [who have left active service but are not retired] will certainly find fault with it, but that doesn’t matter!”
According to Kayitesi-Jozan, among Macron’s phrases that hit the nail on the head during this sensitive trip, this one was particularly striking: “A genocide cannot be erased. It is indelible. It never ends. You don’t live after genocide, you live with it, as best you can.”
A few hours earlier, on the plane taking them to Kigali, this improvised adviser – who had left Rwanda on 3 July 1994, crammed into a bus among other children and teenagers, in the final days of the genocide – had whispered to Emmanuel Macron, at his request, a few words in Kinyarwanda with which to polish his presentation. Following her advice, the French president substituted the survivors’ ritual motto – “Ibuka!” (“Remember!”) – in the text of his presentation, a formula in the first person that was to punctuate the speech: “Ndibuka”. “I remember.”
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