Top-ranking former French officials on Monday angrily rejected claims of complicity in Rwanda's genocide, as ceremonies were held in Kigali to mark the 20th anniversary of the massacres.
France had no presence at the commemorations after it cancelled a ministerial visit in response to the latest accusations by Rwandan President Paul Kagame and the French ambassador was barred from attending.
The Rwandan president said French soldiers - who helped train the Hutu nationalist-controlled Rwandan army prior to 1994, as well as being accused of aiding the killers to escape - were both accomplices and “actors” in the bloodbath that left 800 000 dead.
Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo also said France had to face up to the “difficult truth” over its involvement.
The re-awakened accusations sparked widespread outrage in France.
Edouard Balladur of the centre-right UMP, prime minister at the time of the killings, said Kagame “is constantly seeking to accuse France when he himself has not, after 20 years, been able to bring together the Rwandan people.
“France is in no way complicit in the genocide. On the contrary, it of all countries in the world was the only one that took the initiative to organise a humanitarian operation to prevent widespread massacres,” he told Europe 1 radio.
General Jean-Claude Lafourcade, the former commander of Operation Turquoise, the French military mission in Rwanda, also rejected the accusations.
“I find Mr. Kagame's accusations unfounded and unfair - they completely tarnish this day of commemoration for a global human tragedy,” he told RTL radio.
Noting that French forces arrived at the end of June 1994, when “90 percent of the massacres” had already been committed, Lafourcade said: “Not a single French soldier was in Rwanda during the genocide.”
Kagame's FPR rebels overthrew the Hutu-led administration, and his party still controls the government, but many of those accused of the worst crimes of the war escaped, allegedly under the cover of the French military mission.
In 2008, a report by a Rwandan commission of inquiry concluded that France had trained the militias that carried out killings and French troops had taken part in massacres. It accused 13 politicians and 20 officers by name.
Before the latest row, relations between Kigali and Paris - which were completely frozen from 2006 to 2009 - had improved and France was taking steps to address a key criticism from Rwanda, its alleged sheltering of wanted genocide suspects.
In a landmark ruling last month, a French court sentenced former Rwandan army captain Pascal Simbikangwa to 25 years in prison for his role in the massacre. - Sapa-AFP