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Macron acknowledges some French responsibility in Rwandan genocide and asks forgiveness

French President Emmanuel Macron was in Rwanda on May 27 asking for forgiveness for his country's role in the 1994 genocide. (Video: Reuters)

PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday said that France bears partial responsibility for the Rwandan genocide, a historic acknowledgment that could mark a watershed moment in the fragile relations between the two countries.

Speaking at a memorial for victims of the genocide in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, Macron said that France ignored warnings of a genocide in 1994 and that it bears “overwhelming responsibility in a spiral that ended in the worst.”

“Only those who went through that night can perhaps forgive,” he said.

But the French president maintained that the country had not been an accomplice to the ethnic Hutu extremists who slaughtered an estimated 800,000 people — most of them members of the Tutsi minority — in the killings that lasted about 100 days.

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France and other Western powers failed to intervene, and French relations with Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who was born into a Tutsi family, have been dominated by tensions.

In 2010, French President Nicolas Sarkozy became the country’s first leader to visit Rwanda following the genocide. Though Sarkozy acknowledged mistakes during his visit, Rwanda’s government maintained that France had yet to fully confront its role in the 1994 killings.

Macron, who was 16 at the time of the genocide, has as president sought to improve relations with Rwanda and ordered an examination of France’s responsibility. A report released in March concluded that the country bore responsibilities for the 1994 events but was not complicit in the crimes. Some of the report’s contents were echoed by Macron on Thursday.

In his speech, Macron stopped short of an apology — an omission that will leave many Rwandans disappointed, said Phil Clark, a professor of international politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

Still, Kagame said he welcomed the French leader’s words as “the truth” and “something more valuable than an apology.”

Clark said the positive Rwandan government response, after years of tumultuous relations, may indicate a new phase of pragmatism in a pandemic-shaken world marked by declining foreign aid and struggling economies.

“There’s a bigger political game going on here, which is that Rwanda sees France at the moment as a very useful partner in terms of economic ties, military partnership, diplomatic ties on the [U.N.] Security Council,” he said.

Kagame, who at the height of the genocide led the Rwandan Patriotic Front into Rwanda from Uganda and chased many of its perpetrators into Congo, remains hugely popular in his country.

His decades in power, however, have been marked by a stifling of any opposition, often on grounds that dissenters are genocide deniers or would-be instigators of another genocide.

An ongoing case against Paul Rusesabagina, the famed hero of the Hollywood film “Hotel Rwanda,” has resurfaced many of the post-genocide period’s grievances. Rusesabagina is accused by the government of financing rebels tied to genocide perpetrators and attempting to overthrow Kagame. His family asserts that the charges against him are politically motivated.

Though Macron has shown a willingness to confront dark chapters of France’s past — including the country’s legacy in Algeria — he has not shied away from presenting himself as an ally of repressive leaders in Chad and other African countries.

Clark said that a French-Rwandan rapprochement could face other obstacles. First, it remains to be seen whether France can deliver the benefits the Rwandan government is expecting from stronger ties.

“The second reason is that a lot of this France-Rwanda relationship hinges heavily on who the French president is at any particular time,” Clark said. “If [Macron] were to leave the scene, it’s not clear to me that we’d necessarily see France adopt the same position towards Rwanda.”

Bearak reported from Nairobi.

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