French President Emmanuel Macron
French President Emmanuel Macron

Apology or no apology: French President Emmanuel Macron’s 'apology' during Rwanda visit was a diplomatic slur

By Opinion Time of article published Jun 5, 2021

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By: Charles Matseke

Apology or no apology? This is the question that President Emmanuel Macron’s first visit to Rwanda left. Macron led a formal state visit to Rwanda with the intent of apologising to the country for the French involvement in the Rwandan genocide of 1994. The apology was not a formal one, meaning that this was nothing short of a diplomatic slur aimed at restoring French relations with one of the fastest growing economies of the East African region.

The apology was not formulated in a way that would acknowledge three main features of a true apology: (1) it did not acknowledge the actions taken and resulting pain inflicted on the people of Rwanda; (2) it did not provide any action plan for how France will right the wrong; and (3) nothing has been done to prove that there is an actual change in behaviour, assuring the people of Rwanda that there won't be a repeat of the past.

Perhaps the most basic question is: Does the informal apology Macron offered to Rwanda qualify as an apology at all? Rwanda, just like any other African country, is marginalised in mainstream international relations. Our continent continues to be regarded as an empty space politically, perhaps that’s why over two million victims of the violence that befell the country 26 years ago don’t really deserve a formal apology with formal processes. Some analysis of Africa still paints the continent as peripheral to the big powers such as France, China, Russia and the United States. A reality that continues to reinforce the question of African agency.

Lest we forget that during the Rwandan genocide of 1994, members of the Hutu ethnic majority in Rwanda murdered as many as 800 000 people, mostly of the Tutsi minority.

Just last year, Rwanda celebrated 25 years that signified the end of a brutal and atrocious moment in its history – the Rwanda genocide of 1994. This year, Macron visited the country for the first time, addressing questions pertaining to French involvement in the violence that befell the country during the genocide.

The alleged support that France provided to the Hutu-led government against the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front is undeniable. It is actually both a historical fact and the crux of this impending question regarding France’s active role in the murder of over 800 000 Tutsi people. Suffice it to say, Rwanda has thus far kept its cool with France, yet President Paul Kagame saw fit to invite Macron to the 25th year genocide commemoration last year.

Another error in history occurred when Macron insisted that Herve Berville, a young French legislator who also happened to be of Rwandan descent, attend the commemoration. For some, this could easily be perceived as a diplomatic insult or suggest that Rwanda is not taken seriously by France. The immediate question here speaks to France’s military operation that took place between June and August of 1994, formally known as Operation Turquoise. During this time, France facilitated a ‘humanitarian’ safe zone in the south-east region of Rwanda. Quantitatively, this zone did actually spare a few lives of the Tutsis and other victims of the genocide.

Nonetheless, it is an undeniable fact that even in zone Turquois people were murdered, Tutsis in particular. The same sentiment was also widely shared by Guillaume Ancel, who is a French army veteran who served in Rwanda during the genocide. His memoirs were recently published entitled Rwanda, an end to the silence.

The core of his argument is that France portrayed its military operation as a humanitarian mission in order to hide its support of the Hutu-led mass killings of the Tutsis. Furthermore, according to Survie, a NGO, France played an active role in the genocide and actively armed the perpetrators at the time when there were enough indications of planned killings.

Consequently, in April 2019, Macron established a commission of experts to examine archived documents that had previously been seized by the government. Fast-forward to this year, and Macron visits Rwanda for the first time regarding the time in question and all he had to say about the allegations levelled against France is that his country recognises its responsibility in the 1994 genocide, asked for forgiveness for France’s role, but without offering an official apology.

This raises yet another question as to what could Macron have meant, or how he defines “his country’s role” and the halfway “apology”? The government said it "represents an important step toward a common understanding of France's role in the genocide against the Tutsi". As an afterthought, what does the current story of Rwanda and France tell us about reflexivity and the art of diplomacy? Is this a case of the shifting dynamics in international relations?

Is it a story whose sole purpose is for the truth to come out, or is accountability next on the cards? Still, history is yet to determine that. The important task for now going forward is to keep on reflecting on how history has been distorted, the truth and the nuances going forward.

*Charles Matseke, PhD Candidate in International Relations and Researcher at the Centre for Africa-China Studies, University of Johannesburg.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.

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