French President Emmanuel Macron has travelled to Rwanda for a highly symbolic visit aimed at repairing relations between the two countries after decades of Rwandan accusations that France was complicit in the 1994 genocide.
Macron arrived in the capital, Kigali, early on Thursday and is due to hold talks with Rwandan President Paul Kagame. But the most anticipated part of his speech will come when Macron gives a speech at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, where some 250,000 victims of the massacres are buried.
Some in Rwanda will be hoping for an official apology that France failed to help stop the 100-day killing spree against 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
“It would be a very good thing if Emmanuel Macron apologises,” said Freddy Mutanguha, director of the Aegis Trust NGO which runs the Kigali memorial.
Kagame, who has visited Macron in Paris twice since the latter took office four years ago, has played down the importance of the issue, saying any apology on the matter had to be spontaneous.
Macron’s visit follows the release in March of a report by a French inquiry panel that said a colonial attitude had blinded French officials and the government bore a “serious and overwhelming” responsibility for not foreseeing the slaughter. However, the report absolved France of direct complicity in the killings.
Kagame, who has previously said France participated in the genocide, said last week that the report “meant a lot” to people in his country.
Rwandans could “maybe not forget, but forgive”, France for its role, said Kagame, a Tutsi and the main power in Rwandan politics since his rebel army ended the killings by death squads loyal to the Hutu-led government.
Macron agreed in April to open the Rwanda archives of former President Francois Mitterrand, who was in charge during the genocide. Shortly afterwards, Rwanda released its own report that found France was aware a genocide was being prepared and bore responsibility for enabling it, continuing in its unwavering support for Rwanda’s then president, Juvenal Habyarimana.
It was the shooting down of Habyarimana’s plane, killing the president, that unleashed the frenzy of killings.
“French officials armed, advised, trained, equipped, and protected the Rwandan government,” the report said. France then proceeded to cover up its role for years, it added.
The streets of Kigali were quiet on Thursday, with none of the banners or flags that usually accompany a high-level visit.
As his flight took off for Kigali, Macron tweeted he felt “a deep conviction: over the coming hours, together we will write a new chapter in our relations with Rwanda and Africa”.
French government spokesman Gabriel Attal said “the president’s willingness to examine our history, our past, directly and transparently, is the best way to move forward”. Macron is also expected to name a new ambassador to Rwanda, the first accredited French envoy since 2015.
“I wish he could ask forgiveness for what France did during 1994,” said Henriette Uwase, a 28-year-old street vendor selling mangoes, who was two years old when her father and two brothers were killed.
Many Rwandans had been angered because perpetrators of the genocide had been able to live abroad, said Alain Gauthier, who pursues such individuals with his Rwandan wife, a Tutsi who lost her mother and other relatives.
“We are waiting for one thing and that is an apology,” he said. “Those who committed genocide and live pleasantly in France (must) be tried.
“Many people say that he will not apologise but I don’t see how Macron comes to Rwanda and leaves without apologizing for France’s role.”
From Rwanda, Macron will travel to South Africa, where he will meet President Cyril Ramaphosa to discuss COVID-19 and regional crises.