Vincent Duclert: ‘In Rwanda, France dismissed reality’

By Mehdi Ba

Posted on Wednesday, 7 April 2021 13:10
France Rwanda Genocide
In this August 21, 1994 file photo, Rwandan Hutus give the departing French troops the thumbs-up as the French army pull out of Cyangugu, in southwest Rwanda. (AP Photo/Jean Marc Bouju, File)

27 years ago today, 7 April, the Rwandan genocide erupted following the plane crash of then President Juvenal Habyarimana. For the next 100 days, armed militias engaged in a killing spree against the ethnic minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus. In total, some 800,000 people died. The French, who were allies of the Hutu government under Habyarimana, had sent a special force to evacuate their citizens and set up safe zones. Although they witnessed the horror all around them, to this day, they are accused of having done very little to stop the killing.

Complicity in genocide, Operation Turquoise, parallel commands … The historian Vincent Duclert returns to the role of France in Rwanda, a few days after the submission of his voluminous report to French President Emmanuel Macron.

French historian Vincent Duclert

Two years of work, tens of thousands of archival documents scrutinised, a report of 996 pages – not counting the appendices – all to examine the responsibilities of France in the policy conducted in Rwanda between 1990 and 1994. The Commission of historians and jurists chaired by Duclert delivered on 26 March a report that could not help but be debated.

Did France err on the side of “blindness”? Was it guilty of “complicity in genocide”? Was there a single pilot in this Franco-African plane that had become uncontrollable, or was there a multiplicity of parallel chains of command, most of which escaped the control of Parliament and the knowledge of citizens?

“This report brings elements of truth into the public debate,” he comments soberly, adding that: “The independence of the Commission has been guaranteed throughout its work by the President of the Republic, who commissioned this report, just as the means necessary for its research have been granted without reservation.

With an official trip by Emmanuel Macron to Rwanda announced in the coming weeks, eleven years after the one made by Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010, does the Duclert report mark the beginnings of a diplomatic appeasement between the two countries or a new source of discord?

President of the Research Commission on the French archives relating to Rwanda and the Tutsi genocide, historian Vincent Duclert sat down to answer our questions.

Since the publication of your report, several political leaders directly concerned have expressed their satisfaction: the former secretary general of the Élysée, Hubert Védrine; the former minister of foreign affairs, Alain Juppé; and the current minister of the army, Florence Parly. Should we see this as a complacency of the report towards the French institutions of the time?

Vincent Duclert: I do not wish to comment on the comments made in the report. But I would make a distinction between the reaction of Hubert Védrine, on the one hand, and those of Alain Juppé and Florence Parly, on the other. With regard to the latter, one senses a certain seriousness in their remarks, a sense of responsibility, as well as a willingness to recognise that there are questions in this matter that are legitimate to ask.

As for Hubert Védrine, he certainly seized upon an observation that we made: the absence of French “complicity,” a term that we define – on the basis of the archives that we consulted – as an intentional association with the genocidal enterprise.

We have chosen, as historians, to assume that this is the question everyone is asking. But if Hubert Védrine wants to consider, on the basis of our report, that France is exonerated of all responsibility, it seems to me that his judgment does not correspond to the overwhelming responsibilities that we have established. French policy in Rwanda contributed to the setting up of a genocidal process without the French authorities even understanding it, without them wanting it. And that, too, must be recognised.

In your conclusions, you speak of the “blindness” of French officials. What exactly do you mean by this term?

It is neither passivity nor ignorance. Rather, it was a willingness to ignore the many warnings that came from the heart of the State, where several protagonists had expressed their opposition to a system – opaque – of unconditional support for an undemocratic regime, held by extremists who promoted a racist policy of persecuting the Tutsis.

This blindness consisted of deliberately ignoring all these warnings in order to maintain the Habyarimana regime at all costs, using methods that we have shown to be irregular. This is why the key point of our analysis, which is taken up in the conclusion, refers to a real “bankruptcy”, at once political, intellectual and institutional. Reality was discarded in favour of a reading that did not conform to the Rwandan situation.

You mention the regular, even frequent, use of “orders by voice” in the management of this file by former President François Mitterrand that has no traces in the archives. How were you able to establish this?

In particular, we discovered that Pierre Joxe, minister of defence from January 1991 to March 1993, had sent a note to François Mitterrand in order to reform decision-making in military matters – and this is clearly related to Rwanda. In particular, he asked that the instructions of the President of the Republic be written down. However, Hubert Védrine refused – it is written in black and white – to transmit this note to François Mitterrand.

We could not establish the proportion of these “orders by voice,” but we did note that the actions of the Presidential Chief-of-Staff (EMP) were never stopped, that the notes sent by the EMP to the head of state came back with annotations that did not invalidate his initiatives. Moreover, when the desire to transcribe François Mitterrand’s instructions in writing was expressed, there was a blockage… All of these elements attest to the fact that the EMP acted, to a large extent, on the basis of unwritten orders, although it was under the authority of the politician.

The Chief-of-Staff is a key element in French dealings in Rwanda. However, it seems to escape the traditional organisation chart of the armies…

We have indeed observed a series of actions that we have qualified as irregular, at best. For example, faxes were sent to the defence attaché in Kigali, René Galinié, and it was requested that they be destroyed after reading, which is problematic in terms of the functioning of democratic institutions.

The private staff of the President of the Republic, which theoretically has an advisory function, has gradually been transformed into an operational staff – a function that in principle falls to the military staff. We therefore wondered whether the officers at the head of this EMP had behaved like factious military men, twisting their duty of obedience to become real political decision-makers, or whether they had obeyed the orders they had received.

Through François Mitterrand’s responses to certain notes from his private chief of staff, letters addressed to Hubert Védrine or addressed by the latter to the President, or even statements made by François Mitterrand during restricted Defence Councils, it appears that the Head of State did have authority over the EMP and could have put an end to its actions if necessary. He did not do so.

In 1998, the Parliamentary Information Mission on Rwanda also analysed the official archives. But it also conducted numerous hearings in public or behind closed doors: political leaders, senior civil servants, military officers, academics… This did not show in your work, which was based solely on the examination of archives?

The strength of this report is that it is based solely on written archives – which I must point out will be made public on 7 April at the National Archives. The hearings of former actors take into account the acuity of their memories after 30 years, but also the reality of the current debate. It is very difficult to distinguish between the way we talk today and the restitution of the memory of the time.

Our work first focused on this access to written archives, in order to create a consolidated knowledge around the event. By focusing on the archives, we wanted to have a coherence in the service of the truth.

Yet the vast majority of the protagonists are still alive. Why, as historians, did you not confront your findings with their stories?

You know how traumatic this story still is for its actors. Moreover, we did not want to be forced to reread these archives. We are specialists in archives, in the history of the State, in the history of genocides… We take the documents in their historical context: submitting them to the rereading of the actors themselves seemed to us to weaken our work. We therefore adopted this principle, a bit like working on medieval history. We preferred to distance ourselves from the very particular climate that surrounds this dossier.

You recall that the former socialist minister of defense, Pierre Joxe, tried to curb the excesses of French policy in Rwanda. Who else, in the workings of the State, played this role in the face of the “hawks” of the Élysée Palace and the military staff?

One example is a young diplomat, Antoine Anfré, “Rwanda” editor at the Direction des affaires africaines et malgaches of the Quai d’Orsay [Director of African and Malgasy affairs at the ministry of foreign affairs], who wrote personal notes on Rwanda in the early 1990s that proved to be extremely relevant because they showed the complexity of the ethnic question and the call of Rwandan society for a political rebuilding of the country. Not only was he not listened to, but he was sidelined and forced to leave the Directorate.

Around Pierre Joxe, we can mention his director of cabinet, François Nicoullaud, who died in March, who was a great ambassador. Or Jean-Pierre Filiu, who became a renowned historian on the Arab world.

We can also mention the French ambassador to Uganda, Yannick Gérard [who later represented the Quai d’Orsay in Rwanda during Operation Turquoise]. He proved to be an intelligent, cultured and courageous diplomat. It was he who protested, in July 1994, against the lack of arrest of the presumed genocidaires in the Turquoise zone.

In this Thursday, Dec. 19, 1996, file photo, tens of thousands of Rwandan refugees, who have been forced by the Tanzanian authorities to return to their country despite fears they will be killed upon their return, stream back towards the Rwandan border on a road in Tanzania. (AP Photo/Jean-Marc Bouju, File)

And among the officers?

There was, of course, General Jean Varret, who refused the irregular authority of the EMP over the troops deployed in Rwanda, which theoretically came under the Military Cooperation, which he directed. Or Colonel René Galinié, the first defence attaché, who was subjected to enormous pressure from the deputy head of the EMP, General Huchon, even though he was not subject to any hierarchical link with this particular staff. He eventually asked to be removed from his post in Kigali.

Among the military, in addition to Jean Varret, mention should be made of General Sartre, who wrote a fascinating end-of-mission report at the end of [Operation] Turquoise and who has just published an article in Le Monde that shows it is possible to be a senior officer who respects obedience while at the same time being aware of his responsibility to inform the political authorities of the reality of the situation. This free speech of the former actors was made possible by the report: research is also about that.

Several institutions refused to give you access to their archives, notably the Office of the National Assembly [parliament], which did not allow you to consult the archives of the 1998 Parliamentary Information Mission. Why was this?

Generally speaking, all the major State services have been willing to accompany the request of the President, thereby welcoming our commission. If we have not been able to access certain archives, it is also because there are significant delays in the investigation. We have been able to benefit from systematic exemptions on funds theoretically inaccessible for 50 years in order to be able to consult them.

But it is true that two institutions did not grant us access. For the National Assembly, I wrote a first letter, then a second one, which I brought personally to its president, at the Hôtel de Lassay, to ask him for access to the archives of the Parliamentary Information Mission [MIP]. Especially since the MIP, in addition to the archives of which it had access, had conducted several hearings behind closed doors. In its – belated – response, on 3 July 2020, the Office of the National Assembly refused us access to its archives on the pretext, precisely, that these were closed hearings.

This is understandable, but there was much more to it. These MIP archives are not limited to the transcripts of in-camera hearings. We expected to have access to the correspondence of president Paul Quilès [of the National Assembly] and vice-president Bernard Cazeneuve, [of the National Assembly] and also to be able to consult the entire declassified archives… We were told to click on the link to access the three volumes of the Quilès Mission report on the Internet. I insisted, in a long letter addressed to the President of the National Assembly, to which I did not receive a reply.

The Grand Chancellery of the Legion of Honour did not allow you to consult its archives either. What did you expect to find there?

We discovered in the archives of the defence attaché in Kigali the existence of numerous decorations awarded to various Rwandan personalities, some of whom would later prove to be genocidal figures. The oldest of these awards date back to the seven-year term of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, but we were particularly interested in the period 1990-1994. It is always useful to know for what reasons a personality receives this decoration. We were promised an answer, but it never came.

We were also interested in knowing whether these decorations were subsequently withdrawn from the persons concerned in view of their involvement in the genocide. It has not been possible to find out this either.

The French army returned to Rwanda on June 22, 1994, under a UN mandate, as part of Operation Turquoise. Since that time, observers have wondered about possible hidden agendas, which could have consisted in creating a sanctuary for the genocidal government and its army. What does the mission conclude on this point?

On May 16, Foreign Minister Alain Juppé officially recognised the genocide of the Tutsis. Together with Prime Minister Édouard Balladur and Defence Minister François Léotard, they then put pressure on President Mitterrand to implement a humanitarian operation, on the pretext that France could not remain inactive and powerless – even though the events underway were described more as a humanitarian catastrophe than as the realisation of a genocide.

This political will created a windfall for certain military personnel in the armed forces and the general staff, who had always given massive support to the Rwandan Armed Forces, despite the warnings, while demonising the RPF.

This was an opportunity, according to what we have been able to trace, to include in an operation presented as humanitarian, a military operation aimed at opposing the RPF by dissuasion, or even by force, while maintaining a form of balance between the government camp and the rebellion, with the goal of returning to the power sharing scheme adopted in August 1993 in Arusha. And here we find ourselves in a logic that is totally out of touch with the ground, since the genocide has rendered the prospect of power-sharing obsolete in the meantime. But this attempt was stopped dead in its tracks by Édouard Balladur and François Léotard.

Several policies were pursued in parallel in Rwanda. The one that consisted of supporting the Arusha Accords between the regime and the RPF, which Hubert Védrine also availed himself of; but there were also other, antagonistic policies that undid this ambitious logic of mediation aimed at achieving peace and power sharing. If French citizens had known the nature of the latter, I do not think they would have accepted them.

At this key moment, it is clear that Prime Minister Edouard Balladur is trying to influence François Mitterrand’s ambitions…

Very quickly, with the support of the minister of defence, François Léotard, he [Balladur] tried to prevent this attempt and to confine Turquoise to a humanitarian operation, certainly supported by very large military resources – which was justified by the fact that the RPF had also announced that France would not be welcome in Rwanda. But Paris, maximising this threat, deployed very large military resources for an operation that claimed to be humanitarian.

Despite its initial ambiguity, it must be recognised that this operation would go on to save lives, even if certain episodes have shown how much the units deployed on the ground lacked verified information and were even intoxicated by the lies of the authorities in place (who turned out to be controlled by the genocidaires), relating, for example, to “RPF maquis” that did not actually exist. This misinformation partly explains the tragic delay in rescuing the survivors of Bisesero.

This episode is particularly controversial: it concerns a massacre, on the hills of Bisesero, in western Rwanda, of several hundred threatened Tutsi survivors who had previously requested assistance from a patrol of French soldiers who had discovered them by chance on 27 June 1994.

In this Tuesday, May 17, 1994 file photo, refugees who fled the ethnic bloodbath in neighbouring Rwanda carry water containers back to their huts at the Benaco refugee camp in Tanzania, near the border with Rwanda. (AP Photo/Karsten Thielker, File)

We know that the head of this detachment, Lieutenant-Colonel Jean-Rémy Duval, warned Colonel Rosier [who commanded the troops of the Special Operations Command (COS)] of the situation by telephone. But the latter chose to give priority to other operations, which were deemed to be a priority, to the detriment of Bisesero.

And it was not until a new team of marine commandos, accompanied by chief warrant officer Thierry Prungnaud of the GIGN, discovered the survivors again on 30 June, three days later, that Colonel Rosier decided to carry out a real rescue operation in Bisesero, at night, with an armada of helicopters, to rescue the wounded and secure the area. In the meantime, several hundred of them had been killed. These three days represent a terrible misjudgment, without any willingness to let the threatened Tutsis be exterminated.

The letter sent in recent days by Florence Parly to the France-Turquoise association, led by veterans of the operation, suggests that your report dismisses any accusation of their possible support for the genocidal camp during Turquoise.

It should be noted that we did not work on the basis of these accusations, but on the basis of the archives at our disposal. Our report certainly has its limitations, but it constitutes a step in the research. With respect to Operation Turquoise, we had no political agenda. We point out that there were attempts to divert it to a resolutely offensive approach against the RPF, which caused very strong tensions within the institutions. In the end, however, the advocates of a humanitarian operation prevailed. Nevertheless, the ambiguity persisted.

At the time, more than 2,500 French soldiers were deployed in a field that most of them did not know and where a minority had already served during Operation Noroît and had established ties with the Rwandan armed forces. They are not given clear orders or a true understanding of the situation. This lack of understanding, which has remained engraved on the images filmed by the audiovisual service of the armies, leads these soldiers to dialogue with the genocidaires… unwillingly.

This reveals the ambiguity of the orders given, which can be seen in various end-of-mission reports that are extremely lucid. The question of the arrest of those responsible for the genocide is one example among others of the absence of clear orders and of the confusion that may have reigned at the top of the State.

Do the archives indicate that one of the objectives of Turquoise was to create a buffer zone to delay the defeat of the genocidal camp?

The archives tell us little about the intentions behind the creation of the Humanitarian Safe Zone (HSZ). What we do know, however, is that there was a desire to preserve the option of the Arsuha Accords [signed in August 1993] and thus to maintain the Hutu government at the origin of the genocide in the perspective of a dialogue with the RPF – still considered by France to be an ethnic party, originating from abroad (hence the expression, hammered out at the Élysée, of “Ugando-tutsi”).

Even at the beginning of the paroxysmal phase of the genocide, there is this idea in Paris that the Arusha Accords must still exist. This is akin to a complete fiction, but it is not perceived as such by the French political leaders.

The Humanitarian Safe Zone is thus seen as a potentially sanctuary territory from which the Hutu leadership – protected by the French army against the RPF – could continue to assume its part in the Arusha Accords. France hopes to be able to count on the “moderates” of the Hutu camp and the FAR, a way of not conceding anything to the RPF, which at the same time is fighting the genocide.

How did France behave after the final RPF victory over the genocidal camp, officially on 4 July?

From that date on, the new government was hardly recognised by Paris as a future partner. The prospect of recognising the RPF and entrusting it with the administration of the Turquoise zone was not self-evident. It is also in this respect that Turquoise reveals the weight of the French commitment to Rwanda until 1993.

Nevertheless, Édouard Balladur insisted that France leave the zone it controlled as quickly as possible, aware that it was not far from a colonial expedition from which it was absolutely necessary to disengage. For the Prime Minister, it is essential to change times.

How would you describe the chain of French responsibilities? Is it rather pyramidal, with François Mitterrand at the top? Or were there, from 1990 to 1994, autonomous “islands” in the decision-making process, particularly among the military in charge of the file?

Several policies coexisted in France within the various decision-making centres. For example, there was a desire on the part of some to implement the Arusha agreements. And at the same time, there is a policy that undermines this will: by overarming Rwanda, by unconditional support for the dictatorship of Juvénal Habyarimana, by refusing to give the opposition a chance. The decisions of the Élysée Palace are imposed on the ground, without any possible discussion.

This does not prevent certain “chapels” from taking advantage of the situation to promote their own agenda. I am thinking in particular of the naval troops, who exercise a kind of monopoly on military cooperation in Africa. They have been able to take advantage of this policy, which is both pyramidal and uncontrolled, to play their own cards. Hence the ousting, in 1993, of General Jean Varret, head of military cooperation but independent of the naval troops. Today, he speaks the truth, as do others among his comrades.

One sentence in your report dismisses, without explanation, the prospect of French “complicity in genocide” in Rwanda. On what do you base this assessment, which seems to condition complicity on intentionality?

We ask this question as historians, not as jurists, and we provide the necessary explanation. These notions are certainly subject to a penal qualification, but it remains possible for historians to reflect on them with their own tools. Genocide is a legal notion forged by Raphael Lemkin, but it is also a historical notion. It was therefore important for us to reflect on it, given that we knew we would be questioned on the subject. We therefore chose to assume this questioning.

What we are saying is that through the archives that we have been able to consult, no document establishes an intentional association of France with the genocidal enterprise.

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