French President Emmanuel Macron visited Rwanda this week as part of a process aimed at confronting France’s past “without repentance or denial”. By acknowledging France’s role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the French president sought to turn the page on 27 years of diplomatic tensions.
“I come to acknowledge our responsibility.” On May 27, in the Rwandan capital of Kigali, French President Emmanuel Macron delivered a historic speech, officially acknowledging for the first time France’s role in the 1994 genocide, which left some 800,000 people dead, mostly from the Tutsi minority.
The official visit, aimed at turning the page on the persistent tensions between France and Rwanda over this tragic chapter, is part of a broader policy of “looking history in the face” that Macron established at the beginning of his term. It is a risky exercise that has engendered both admiration and criticism.
While Macron’s speech was well received in Rwanda, his remarks came as little surprise. For several years, the French president has been working to restore relations between the two countries. In May 2018, he welcomed Rwandan President Paul Kagame in Paris and promised that researchers would study documents in the French archives related to the Rwandan genocide.
A year later, Macron made good on his promise with the establishment of the Duclert Commission, which concluded, in its report submitted to the president in March of this year, that the French government bore heavy responsibility for the genocide, while excluding the notion of complicity. Kagame hailed the report as a “great step forward”. In the meantime, France decreed May 7 the day of commemoration of the Tutsi genocide and in April, Macron opened the French archives on the genocide.
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Jean Claude Félix-Tchicaya, researcher at the Institute for European Prospective and Security (IPSE), said that Macron’s recognition of France’s role in the genocide was an historic turning point: “With this speech, Emmanuel Macron has established himself as a man of the 21st century … It’s a step forward for France, Africa and Rwanda,” he said.
A proactive approach
Macron is pursuing this policy of recognition on multiple fronts. During a visit to Burkina Faso in November 2017, he pledged to return African artifacts and art stolen during the colonial conquest. In 2020, France promised to return 26 artifacts to Benin as well as a historic sword to Senegal.
Another major avenue of this policy concerns the issue of colonisation, which Macron called a “crime against humanity” during his 2017 visit to Algeria as a presidential candidate. “It’s part of a past that we need to confront by apologising to those against whom we committed these acts,” he said.
In the end, the apologies were not made, the Élysée ultimately preferring “symbolic acts,” as recommended by historian Benjamin Stora in a report commissioned by the president to achieve a “reconciliation of memories between France and Algeria”.
“The apology is not the central issue, what counts are concrete acts, such as the official recognition of crimes or the opening of archives,” Stora told FRANCE 24.
“Other presidents such as Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, of course, spoke about colonisation, but Emmanuel Macron has stepped up efforts,” Stora said. “He acknowledged France’s responsibility in the disappearance of Maurice Audin [a French mathematician who was tortured to death during the Battle of Algiers], he recognised the assassination of the [Algerian revolutionary] lawyer Ali Boumendjel and even laid a wreath in the name of France in [the Algerian town of] Setif during the commemorations of the massacres of May 8, 1945. Even if there is still much to do, it must be noted that no French president before him had done these things. His actions show that he is not a prisoner of that era and is moving forward in a proactive manner.”
While it is considered courageous by some, Macron’s policy of recognition is far from garnering unanimous support. During an interview on April 18 with CBS News, the president addressed the issue of racism, which he said “causes a lot of tension” in France, and stressed the importance of “calm and open dialogue in order to understand the causes and, in a way, deconstruct our own history”. His statement provoked strong reactions, such as that of The Republican’s Xavier Bertrand, who said Macron’s view was “unfair in terms of what France is” and went against “national unity”.
Some of the president’s critics on the right accuse him of excessive repentance and of giving in to a “racialist” trend. Stora thinks that debate is pointless: “It’s a political trap set by the far right. The question of racism is, of course, important, but it is above all a matter of looking the past in the face. Emmanuel Macron wants to follow in the footsteps of General De Gaulle, who believed that decolonisation was the glory of France. What [Macron] is looking for is the return of international prestige,” he said.
If factions on the right think Macron has gone too far, some on the left think he hasn’t done enough. His failure to deliver a speech on May 10, the National Day of Remembrance of the Slave Trade, angered Christiane Taubira, former Minister of Justice and sponsor of a law recognising slavery as a crime against humanity. “It is quite remarkable that the President of the Republic has not found anything to say about more than two centuries of French history, while five days ago he was waxing lyrical about Napoleon Bonaparte,” she said at the time.
The issue of apologies and reparations continues to be debated. On May 8, as Algeria commemorated its first “National Day of Remembrance,” Algeria made it known that it was still waiting for “repentance” and “fair compensation” from France. Asked during his visit to Kigali about a possible apology to Rwanda, Macron said that the term was “not appropriate”, preferring to acknowledge France’s responsibility. Kagame seemed satisfied, praising Macron’s speech as one of “immense courage” and “more valuable than an apology”.
This story has been translated from the original in French