France and genocide: the murky truth
How far was Mitterrand’s Government involved in the slaughter of hundred of thousands of Rwandans?
There is remarkable television footage shot in the first days of the genocide in Rwanda. It shows a large room in the French Embassy in Kigali filled floor to ceiling with shredded documents.
This was probably the paper trail that might have revealed the depth of involvement between the Elysée Palace and the Hutu faction responsible for massacring hundreds of thousands of Tutsi and opposition Hutu.
[Last] week Rwanda’s commission of inquiry published its findings into the role of France in the genocide of 1994.
The report - the fruit of two years’ work that includes the testimony of 638 witnesses, including survivors and perpetrators of genocide - is damning. It says that certain French politicians, diplomats and military leaders - including President François Mitterrand - were complicit in genocide.
The French authorities knowingly aided and abetted what happened by training Hutu militia and devising strategy for Rwanda’s armed forces.
Training and funding was also given to Rwandan intelligence services on how to establish a database later used to draw up a “kill list” of Tutsi.
The most shocking allegations come from survivors who allege that French soldiers participated in the massacres of Tutsi.
These soldiers were a part of Operation Turquoise, a French military intervention in June 1994, an ostensibly humanitarian mission that had the backing of the UN Security Council.
The Rwanda report directly contradicts an earlier investigation by the French Senate, which reported in 1998 that France had in no way “incited or encouraged” the genocide.
But it also builds on the Senate’s earlier work, which had revealed how some French actions had been “regrettable”, and “the threat of a possible genocide had been underestimated”.
What happened in Rwanda in 1994 is a milestone event; in a few terrible months, up to one million people were killed in organised massacres, planned in advance by the Hutu regime.
Its aim was to create a “pure Hutu state” by eliminating the minority Tutsi and all opponents of its extremist Hutu Power ideology.
This was done by mobilising the country’s unemployed youth into a militia called the Interahamwe; 30,000 young men were recruited and trained to kill with agricultural tools.
They were indoctrinated with a racist anti-Tutsi ideology. There were no secret death camps. The killing was in broad daylight.
The French had favoured the Hutu cause since the 1960s. The rule by the majority Hutu in this one-party state was considered democratic.
The overt discrimination against the minority Tutsi and the human rights abuses against them were largely ignored. By 1990 some one million Rwandans were living as refugees in neighbouring states, Tutsi who had fled during murderous anti-Tutsi campaigns.
In October 1990, the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) invaded from neighbouring Uganda to force a return home for them.
The French immediately sent elite troops to defend the regime in Kigali and in the three years of civil war that followed the French military and French-supplied weaponry ensured its survival.
These French forces stayed for three years, until late 1993 when UN peacekeepers were sent to monitor an internationally brokered peace agreement providing for the return of the refugees and a transition from a Hutu dictatorship to a power-sharing democracy that would include the Tutsi minority.
Drawing on documents recently released from the Paris archive of Mitterrand, the commission clearly describes the motive for French policy in Rwanda.
These documents show how the RPF invasion was considered as clear aggression by an Anglophone neighbour on a Francophone country.
The RPF was a part of an “Anglophone plot”, involving the President of Uganda, to create an English-speaking “Tutsi-land”. Once Rwanda was “lost” to Anglophone influence, French credibility in Africa would never recover. The policy was to avoid a military victory by the RPF.
The French journalist Patrick de Saint Exupéry alleges that the French created a secret command of the Rwandan Army through what he called a “légion présidentielle”.
This was a group of elite operatives that was answerable only to Mitterrand and which drew up battle plans and military strategy, and built a psychological warfare capability with operatives trained in the manipulation of public opinion.
My own work has shown that not all French military operatives left Rwanda when the UN peacekeepers arrived in 1993.
When the genocide began six months later there were senior French officers attached to key units in the Rwandan Army - the para-commando and reconnaissance battalions, and the Presidential Guard.
It was French-trained soldiers from these units who, early in the morning of April 7, had orders to eliminate members of Rwanda’s political opposition - and to kill anyone with a Tutsi identity card.
Without a full accounting from these French officers the story of the crucial early hours of genocide will never be complete.
To date only three French officers have testified at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda - and only then in defence of Rwandan military officers on genocide charges.
The French Senate discovered how policy towards Rwanda had been made by a secretive network of military officers, politicians, diplomats, businessmen, and senior intelligence operatives.
At its centre was Mitterrand. French policy had been unaccountable to either parliament or the press. This has made the discovery of the truth about France’s role in the genocide difficult.
It may be that a true reckoning of France’s responsibility will never be possible.
Linda Melvern is the author of Conspiracy to Murder: The Rwandan Genocide (Verso 2006)