I am sure, the tweets this April by Alain Juppé, an aspiring presidential candidate, and France’s Foreign Minister during the Genocide against Rwanda’s Tutsis in 1994 might have sounded as a banal incident of memory distortion.
Not for some of us. Juppé’s well-timed amnesia regarding France’s active role in the genocide against the Tutsi brings back a sense of Déjà vu of France’s “Syndrome de Vichy.”
French historian Henry Rousso has borrowed from psychoanalysis to describe France’s Vichy syndrome as a tendency to confront its collaborationist past with Hitler’s Nazism from 1940 to 1944 and its treatment of its Jewish minority, with a mixture of denial and myth.
After the defeat of France on June 22 1940 Field Marshal Henry-Philippe Pétain established a new Government, at the spa town of Vichy in the Auvergne, Centre of France, which had administrative control over all France.
The Vichy regime, which was the legal successor of the French Third Republic, collaborated with Nazi occupation forces in World War Two from July 1940 to August 1944.
France’s president, who saw over the Genocide against the Tutsi, loyally served the pro-Nazi Vichy regime, which infamously earned him Vichy’s highest decoration the Francisque.
During the Vichy government, France passed a set of legal restrictions, including the September 27, 1940; the October 3, 1940, and; June 2, 1941. On March 29, 1941, France created a Commissariat general aux Questions Juives whose main task was to implement the Statut des Juifs. Together, these legitimised the mass arrest, internment and deportation to the extermination camps of France’s Jewish population.
France handed over 230,000 people residing in France to the Gestapo, German police, and only 32,000 came back. The July 16 and 17 1942, Rafle du Vel’ d’Hiv’ or the Vel’ d’Hiv Mass Roundup that resulted into the arrest and deportation to Auschwitz of 13,152 Jews, among them 4,051 children by the French Police is yet another example of French collaboration with Germany’s Nazi regime.
800 people returned after the war from the Vel’ d’Hiv Mass Roundup; none of the deported children ever came back. However, post World War Two France chose to forget these crucial contributions Vichy powerbrokers made to advance the Nazi regime’s “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Problem in Europe.” Charles de Gaulle had constructed a “resistantialist myth” in which France was a nation of resisters with few collaborators.
This is important: the narrow Gaullist interpretation of France’s role in the war came to liberate postwar France of all guilt for their own collaboration and erased France’s important contributions to the Holocaust.
Living in France in the 1990’s, I was struck how the Vichy logic informed what French journalist Patrick de Saint-Exupéry’s described as France’s ignoble enterprise in Rwanda. For sure, Juppé has a similar pain to confront its collaborationist past with former Rwanda’s génocidaire regime.
Vichy’s version of Rwanda
While studying law at Aix-en-Provence in 1992, I witnessed Mitterrand’s meddling in court proceedings to halt the trial for crimes against humanity of his friend, pro-Nazi Vichy police chief, René Bousquet, who cooperated with the Germans in deporting tens of thousands of Jews to Nazi death camps.
Mitterrand also denied the decisive support French institutions provided in advancing the Nazi’s Final Solution when I was an intern in a law firm in Paris in 1995. Juppé was then his Mitterand’s Foreign affairs minister.
Not so surprisingly, France collaborated closely with those who designed and orchestrated the genocide.
France supplied weapons and auxiliaries to aid in civil war between the then Forces Armées Rwandaises (Ex FAR) and then rebel army, Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA). In November 1991, Éric Gillet reported that French soldiers went so far as to interrogate RPA prisoners.
47 senior French army and gendarmerie officers were supporting the elite battalions, the Garde Présidentielle, the Para-commandos and the reconnaissance battalion. One of them, Janvier Afrika has confessed to been trained by the French Army from December 1991.
France supported the issuance of ethnic identity cards, Rwanda’s Yellow Star of David in Nazi which would have devastating consequences when Hutu French-trained soldiers began killing anyone with a Tutsi identity card.
The only thing more appalling than these acts that took place in Rwanda at the hands of the French, during the genocide against the Tutsi, was the way in which its consequences were dealt with. After the Genocide, we saw more of a France that inflicted immense harm to Rwandans and is still using cynical means, including denial and trying to evade its responsibility. Juppé’s tweets is but an example.
In July 1995, France accepted its official complicity to the Genocide of the Jews when then president Chirac publicly condemned the Vichy regime’s support to Nazi genocidal policies. Is it a coincidence if during the same month the 2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment of the French Foreign Legion and France was stationed in Eastern Zaïre near Rwanda’s border?
It took 60 years for France to acknowledge its role in the Holocaust; how many more would it take for “un génocide sans importance”?
To understand better Juppe’s frenzy mood, shouldn’t International Criminal Court Prosecutor Bensouda take interest in what was France’s former Foreign Minister Juppé plotting with genocidal Foreign Minister Jérôme Bicamumpaka and Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza, the infamous militia leader on the 27 April 1994?
Anyway, questions like these will be debated for a long time. But thanks to the role of French citizens and groups such as the European Grassroots Movement, the April commemoration of the Genocide will stubbornly continue to ask whether the French officials like Juppé are ready to heal, or not, from their persisting Rwanda’s Vichy Syndrome.
The writer is a research fellow at the University of Rwanda’s Centre for Conflict Management
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