Kouchner in Kigali
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Six weeks after the restoration of relations between France and Rwanda, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs has confirmed the reconciliation in situ. Now it has to be implemented, writes Marianne Meunier from Kigali.
It was a big moment for Bernard Kouchner. At 7pm on 6 January, the French minister of foreign affairs landed in Kigali – the first phase of a five-day African marathon which will take him from there to Kinshasa, Brazzaville, Ouagadougou and Abidjan. It was the first French state visit since the restoration of diplomatic relations between Paris and Kigali in November 2009.
Against the terrible backdrop of the 1994 genocide, bitterness has grown over time. Accusations have been made by both sides about the causes and handling of the genocide, with a flurry of French arrest warrants against members of the current government of Rwandan President Paul Kagame. Rwanda in response has angrily denounced French involvement with the brutal Hutu-power regime of former President Juvénal Habyarimana. In 2006, a Franco-Rwandan diplomatic divorce put an end to the brutal and painful relationship. While reconciliation may now be ratified, it will not happen overnight.
Concrete evidence of the cessation of relations are the dusty remains of the embassy, the ambassadorial residence and the French Cultural Centre, damaged by three years of neglect, which were included in Kouchner’s tour in the company of France’s future ambassador to Kigali, Laurent Contini. The new Franco-Rwandan relationship requires starting all over again. Reinventing economic cooperation, safeguarding the language of Molière in a country that has resolutely opted for that of Shakespeare and, most importantly, instilling confidence. The work of the new ambassador will be under high surveillance.
The relationships between the players are good. Proud of his own action
against the genocide, Kouchner was pleased to be greeted at the airport
by Rose Kabuye. Kagame’s director of protocol is symbolic of
Franco-Rwandan relations (the subject of one of those arrest warrants,
in 2008 she was arrested in Germany and then transferred to France).
On 7 January, he met with the President, with Rwanda’s foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, and Rose Mukantabana, the President of the National Assembly. Sometimes serious, sometimes warm and making jokes, he littered his day with small phrases and symbols, aiming to show France’s respect for the Rwandan history – a history which Kigali often accuses Paris of falsifying.
In front of his Rwandan counterpart, Kouchner revealed his emotion at being there and evoked the “necessary friendship” between the two countries. “May I embrace you?”, he then asked Mushikiwabo. Laughter broke out and the request was accepted.
A few hours later, the French doctor and founder of NGO Médecins sans Frontières, laid a garland of flowers and observed a minute’s silence in remembrance of the victims of the 1994 genocide.
In another emotional scene under the crushing weight of the sun, he told the President of Ibuka, an organisation for genocide survivors, “France, Monsieur, is here with you”.
Kouchner was not preaching in the wilderness and the Rwandan welcome was also generous. It was hard to miss the welcome banners in the lobby of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “We are convinced that our two countries cannot but advance together,” Mushikiwabo assured him.
The past remains
Does too much sympathy kill sympathy? Let us not be too cynical. One cannot diminish the desire for two countries to advance towards new horizons. However, the fact remains that Rwanda does not have amnesia. There has been forgiveness, but all has not been forgotten. Does Paris need to excuse itself? The decision belongs to France – but it might be a “good thing”, according to Mushikiwabo.
What remains to be done is to transform the symbols into action. Nicholas Sarkozy’s planned visit – in late February he hopes – should contribute to this.