French President Nicolas Sarkozy acknowledged that France made mistakes during the 1994 genocide, paid homage to the victims but stopped short of apologising during his landmark visit to Kigali on Thursday.
“What happened here is unacceptable, but what happened here compels the international community, including France, to reflect on the mistakes that stopped it from preventing and halting this abominable crime,” he said.
Marking the first visit to Rwanda by a French president since the 1994 massacres, Sarkozy spoke at a joint press conference with Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who has repeatedly accused Paris of aiding the genocide.
The French president, who did not occupy a key post at the time, admitted that his country had “grossly misjudged” the situation that led up to the killing of at least 800 000 people, mainly from Kagame’s Tutsi minority.
He said that France, which wielded great influence in pre-genocide Rwanda, and the rest of the world were “blinded” when they “failed to see the genocidal dimension of the government” that orchestrated the killing.
Kagame appeared to accept France’s position as a sufficient basis on which to resume constructive relations.
‘A difficult past’
“Rwanda and France have had a difficult past ... It is important for the people of France and Rwanda to build a new partnership ... We refuse to be hostages of the past,” he said.
Kagame, who last year made his country join the Commonwealth, also announced he would attend the France-Africa summit due to take place in May in the southern French city of Nice.
The Rwanda president, who speaks very little French, even introduced his counterpart to the press conference with a few words of welcome in Sarkozy’s native tongue.
The highlight of Sarkozy’s hours-long trip to Rwanda was his visit of the main genocide memorial in the capital Kigali.
“In the name of the people of France, I pay my respects to the victims of the genocide against the Tutsis,” he wrote in the visitors book.
He observed a minute’s silence in front of one of the 14 mass graves containing the remains of some 250 000 people and laid a wreath.
Sarkozy, whose country Rwanda also routinely accuses of sheltering wanted genocide suspects, stressed he was keen for all those responsible for the massacres to be punished.
Accompanied by his delegation, including Foreign Affairs Minister Bernard Kouchner, and by two Rwandan ministers, the French president spent 20 minutes touring the memorial’s museum.
Sarkozy remained silent when his Rwandan guide tried to elicit an apology and also stopped short of voicing an apology for France’s alleged role in the genocide during the press conference.
The guide showed him a portrait of former United Nations chief Kofi Annan and said pointedly that “he apologised” for the failings of the international community in 1994.
Sarkozy’s visit nevertheless formalised a recent thaw in bilateral relations, three months after the official resumption of diplomatic relations between Kigali and Paris following a three-year hiatus.
Kigali broke off relations in late 2006 after a French anti-terrorist judge implicated Kagame’s entourage in the assassination of former president Juvenal Habyarimana, the event considered to have triggered the 1994 genocide.
Rwanda responded by releasing a report accusing around 30 senior French political and military figures of complicity in the genocide.
Even if the two countries have reconciled without France apologising, many Rwandans would still like Sarkozy to recognise France’s responsibility.
Two years ago, Sarkozy already spoke of “failings or errors” but his entourage predicted before his trip to Kigali that he would not go as far as Belgium and the United States, who have both presented an apology.
“It’s not a case of forgetting the past but rather of looking towards the future,” is what one official in Paris described as the key message.—AFP