France's Dance with Death in Rwanda

(Originally published 10 April, 2014)

France has a tempestuous and intriguing relationship with Africa. To be fair most former colonialists do given the brutality of the ‘Scramble for Africa’ in the late 19th century and early 20th century. They are the most frequent interventionists in African conflict as we have seen in Mali and the ongoing conflict in the Central African Republic. France’s role in the Rwandan genocide still sparks controversy to this very day as relations between the two countries appeared to drastically sour after Kagame’s verbal condemnation of the French government who supposedly propped up Habyarimana’s genocidal regime known as the akuzu or ‘Network Zero’. 

Belgium created the unstable mainframe for Rwandan politics during its colonial rule of the country, the United States and United Nations did nothing in the face of overwhelming evidence that genocide was occurring but France were intimate allies with ‘Network Zero’. They bear the greatest mark of shame out of all the Western powers in the horrors of 1994. Kagame’s criticism is correct, but he is not without controversy funding a proxy war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Nevertheless numerous authors including Daniela Kroslak and Andrew Wallis, journalists and high ranking officials such as Romeo Dallaire have given damning verdicts of France’s role.

Such a large group with such varying backgrounds cannot be mere coincidence. The facts are there; France provided the regime with diplomatic, military, and financial support. Their fingerprints are all over the place and though they may not have directly contributed to the slaughter on the ground they moulded a genocidal state. If they were so keen not be branded as the Machiavellian sculptor why does Madame Agathe (Mrs Habyarimana), regarded as the real power behind the presidential throne and central figure in the akazu, still reside in France and has not been long ago condemned as a war criminal or brought those they ‘mistakenly’ supported to justice?

Let us rewind back to 1987, seven years before the genocide. This was the year the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), originally a coalition of factions opposed to Habyarimana’s regime, was consolidated by a group of Tutsi refugees in southern Uganda.

The rise of the RPF coincided with another significant event. The previous year (1986) a thirty-nine year old began his role as adviser to his father on African affairs in the French government. His name was Jean Christophe Mitterrand, son ofFrancois Mitterrand (the former president of France). His appointment to theAfrican Unit gave him direct access to all Francophone African state leaders and likely an understanding of inner circles of power in which they operated.

The seventeen francophone states in Africa constituted the only region in the world where France retained enough influence to support its claims to medium power status’ (Meredith, State of Africa, p.493) and its position as a major power on the international stage. France is one of the key five members on the United Nations Council. France like most significant Cold War powers did not want to lose influence in global politics and under such circumstances where Cold War ideologies, though dying in the 1980s, still held sway in halls of power and pervaded the psychologies of many politicians. The RPF (formed by commanders once loyal to the English speaking Uganda’s state) constituted a major threat to this status

The French in the late 1980s and 1990s seemed to be gripped by fears of the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ influence in Africa and jealously guarded both her economic and cultural interests. The paranoia of this British neo-imperialism and the geo-political threat to France’s hegemony in Africa had to be dealt with even if it meant turning a blind eye to human rights abuses during the time of tyrants whereby political power and economic wealth remained in the hands of the few during the 1980s.

‘This included Habyarimana and his powerful Hutu clique (MRND) which had made considerable financial benefits under an abusive system of patronage and clientism since  Habyarimana seized power in 1973. In 1975 France had also signed a defence pact with the Rwandan government. Jean Christophe Mitterrand was to head operations to maintain and enhance relationships with the Francophone states in Africa. These leaders were quick to try to curry favour from his department which Mitterrand in turned into an extensive network of personal connections which in turn improved his ability to influence strategy across Africa. Naturally he would hold the ear of his father. Alistair Cole highlights some interesting facts about Francois Mitterrand’s political power:

“Portrayals of Francois Mitterrand as a republican monarch have claimed support for their theses by focusing on his use of patronage, especially in his promotion of members of his own family to prominent positions….which are informative of his political persona.”

Habyarimana similarly held a tight family based power structure from his home region of Gisenyi in northern Rwanda dominated by Hutus and it is a well-known fact that he developed a close friendship with Jean Christophe Mitterrand and Francois Mitterrand. Similar power structures equaled similar interests and the relationship between Jean Christophe and President Habyarimana was not solely a friendship, but a business partnership as Dallaire notes when he met military general Lafourcade  and his staff officers in Goma during Operation Turquoise (Dallaire, SHWTD, p.450). Jean Christophe, as did his father, had plenty to lose on a potential RPF victory in both their first invasion in 1990 and their second invasion in 1994 during the genocide.

Even Habyarimana’s death was coated in his strong relationship to the French President. His plane (a private Falcon 50 French-built super mid-sized, long-range corporate jet) was a personal present from Francois Mitterrand. It was shot out of the sky and sparked the Rwandan genocide. It should also be noted that Jean Christophe was inherently corrupt and greedy politician who given thirty months on probation for tax evasion and was imprisoned under allegations of complicity of arms traffic.

 The first invasion of the RPF (October 1990) sucked France into the genocidal quagmire as they deployed French soldiers to uphold the defence pact (signed in 1975). These included the 8th Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment, the 2nd French Foreign Legion Parachute Regiment3rd Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment and 13th Parachute Dragoon Regiment; a considerable show of strength for a government claiming to be merely protecting French nationals in Rwanda.

Military support was also included considerable logistical support to the Rwandan Government Forces and financial support for Habyarimana’s sagging regime. The RPF guerrilla army (4,000 strong) was repulsed by the combined forces and the repercussions of the invasion were to be fatal for thousands of Tutsis, thanks to Operation Noroit. Gerard Prunier commented that their was little hesitancy in sending troops to Rwanda in 1990, that when ‘Habyarimana telephoned the Africa Unit to speak to Jean-Christophe Mitterand….he was reassured “We are going to send him a few boys, old man Habyarimana. We are going to bail him out” were Jean-Christophe’s words with an added wink…’ (Meredith, State of Africa, p.494)

This bail out mentioned was that had it not been for French intervention Habyarimana’s regime, already on its knees during a turbulent 1980s, would have fallen. Instead it was allowed to endure and use the ‘Tutsi’ invasion as a pretext towards extermination and consolidate its weakening power base, unifying opposition opposed to Habyarimana’s monopoly against the Tutsi minority.  France aided this consolidation of power and tightened the security of a regime making a transition to a genocidal one to remain in power.

It is highly unlikely that France did not possess vast quantities of information that detailed the vast human rights abuses of the Rwandan population. Thousands were detained by Habyarimana as political repression escalated and hundreds of Tutsis were slaughtered; a reaction to the invasion of the RPF in 1990. Also such a closeness to the regime would likely mean that the Africa Unit understood very the well the nature of Habyarimana’s and his compatriots ideologies and personal views on Tutsis.

This is where French complicity began to take shape. The problem in this debate is that it is difficult to garner whether the French government either made a serious error of interpreting the situation in Rwanda, turned a blind eye to the atrocities of a clearly genocidal regime or that they were directly aiding the Rwandan government’s planned violence.  The country’s political elite in a one-party state  embraced Paris as a source of cultural identity and protection and France like any indulging parent provided such protection to a regime with devious intentions. My view is that it was a combination of serious miscalculations in turning the blind eye to the clear dangers of Habyarimana’s regime liquidating what France may have seen as opposition which eventually meant the entire ethnic Tutsi population. 

French complicity increased dramatically after 1990. The period between 1990-1994 brought about the biggest questions over the French government’s knowledge of the genocide. Was it sheer incompetence on the ground that they couldn’t see the sinister signs? Was it simply that what the French saw as a ‘defensive’ operation were misread? Or did they simply not care about the consequences for the Tutsis in the context of geo-political chessboard, that no one would notice or care like the Zero Network?

The latter seems the most likely as the French in-particular showed considerable prejudice towards the RPF whom some in government branded the ‘Khmer Noir’ (Khmer Black), a distasteful comparison to the rebels conducting genocide in Cambodia under Pol Pot. The French military in Operation Turquoise continued to believe that the RPF were the enemy, the men behind the killings, and that the men they were safeguarding into Zaire were victims of the civil war started by the Tutsi rebels.

Numerous authors have illustrated the French military investment and training that was put into the extremist Hutu organisations such as CDR, akazu and Hutu Power. According to Meredith the Rwandan Government Forces were increased to from 9,000 men in October 1990 to 28,000 men by 1991 whilst France provided both counter-insurgency strategies and training to the incoherent ramble of soldiers. Alex Wallis provides even more detail;

“In the 1990-1994 period the French equipped the Rwandan army with…the most modern weaponry available. The French….had to finance and ship the armaments….officially and unofficially…. to the RGF and train…an unskilled army to use the weaponry….ignoring a new 1992 EU directive aimed at ‘ethical’ deliveries of arms to regions in a state of war or internal unrest.”

According to Wallis, French weapon exports to Rwanda  totaled $24 million (this included unofficial/black-market/illegal sales) out of $100 million of the total weapon imports to Rwanda in this period. When a particular journalist during this period questioned Colonel Bernard Cussac on supplying a regime known for its human rights abuses he retorted ‘are you saying providing military assistance is a human rights violation?!’

Hardly a direct answer given the circumstances and proof of brutal violence in Rwanda. Whilst the military expenditure was in excess, Rwanda’s economy nosedived and the people suffered in poverty. From this extremism grew, encouraged by the Rwandan government who needed a scapegoat for their economic woes.

The French trainers lived within the camps and helped train both the RGF and militias who would conduct the genocide. It would not be surprising if the French military, like most soldiers, would ‘form a strong bond with the RGF soldiers’ the French joining them at local bars to mix with them where naturally political views on the Tutsis and RPF would be communicated to the French.

These small things do make a difference as trainers and soldiers in Rwanda would have gained, after several years or even months on the ground, an understanding of the poisonous atmosphere in the country, nor would they have not informed headquarters of the problems. It is highly unlikely that the French embassy and military did not pick up on the extremist propaganda in the Kangura (which included a picture of Habyarimana and Mitterrand stating the latter was ‘a true friend of Rwanda’) and Hutu Power Radio.

Once the genocide began the French evacuated key members of the network and northern Hutu clique responsible for planning the genocide including Agathe amongst their nationals. Whilst they saved the elite bloated on the excesses of corruption and aid meant for the Rwandan people, they left thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus to die at the hands of the Interahamwe.

France, holding a key position in the United Nations, did not want 800,000 corpses to appear on their doorstep so they placed faith in the fact that the RGF would win the war whom the French continued to support during the conflict. Similarly Colonel Bagasora who was imprisoned for war crimes and was a key planner of the genocide was allowed to pass through the French’s safety net during Operation Turquoise in June 1994. He was followed by thousands of Hutus who had taken part in the killings.

The French adamantly opposed a Belgian request at the United Nations to intervene militarily during the early stages of the genocide as they knew foreign intervention like Operation Noroit in 1990 would spell doom for the RGF as French intervention had done for the RPF’s original invasion. European troops combined with that of Romeo Dallaire’s 2500 men would have given the RPF overwhelming superiority strategically as they were placed at the epicentre of both the government stronghold, Kigali and that of the genocide.

This would seem strange given the supposed military superiority of the RGF, but the French did not predict that the regime would invest so much time in conducting their liquidation of the Tutsi. This tactic was played by the Nazi regime during World War II to wipe out the Jews and this in turn had a debilitating effect on their ability to wage war on the Soviet juggernaut. The French were stalling to allow either their allies to regain their composure. It was embarrassing on all accounts both because they had invested millions of francs in a military which was still tactically inferior to the RPF and Kagame and they hadn’t trained the RGF on a balanced basis. Dallaire noted this even before the onset of genocide.

“I visited the RGF side of the demilitarized zone…the front-line units of the army were composed of poorly trained recruits…using children…. who lacked weapons, food, medical supplies, and above all leadership and morale. There was a double standard in this army:  high for the elite units (including the Presidential Guard) and low for the rest of the army.” (Dallaire, SHWTD, p.68)

Operation Turquoise evidently was done to prop up the regime and the French military safeguarding the passage of millions of Hutu extremists and Hutu refugees. However it was clear that the reality of genocide brought those who saw the RPF as the prime enemy to their senses as well as the French media. Many became disgusted with their role in helping the Hutus escape and the conduct of the massacres.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise though as French soldiers had witnessed butchery in the early stages of genocide during the evacuation of refugees.The government meanwhile shifted uncomfortably in their seats as their hands were stained with the blood of thousands. If they had been so determined to halt the killings why hadn’t they provided information at the U.N Security Council?

Rwanda is France’s Machiavellian jungle. The lack of investigations into their role in not just funding the slaughter, but aiding the escape of thousands of war criminals is both shocking and perplexing. For sure Kagame’s accusations were harsh in light of his own flaws as a leader, but Kagame is a soldier at heart, not a democrat and he has witnessed many of his friends and soldiers die at the hands of French allies supplied with French weapons, can you blame him for pointing the finger? The French government held the RPF in contempt before, during, and after the genocide and as Nicolas Sarkozy recognized serious errors of judgment” and “a kind of blindness” by France over the issue when he visited.

Instead of helping them escape, why have they not essentially tracked down  the ‘Hitlers’ and ‘Himmlers’ of Rwanda, the planners of mass-atrocity? France, only less than a month ago, on 15th March 2014 made their first conviction against the former Rwandan government. After twenty years of failing to answer questions and problems that still reverberate to this very day, you must suspect that France are trying to bury something sinister.

These problems must be understood in the wider context not simply because it is a key historical debate but also in the understanding French motives for current operations in the Central African Republic. Is this an opportunity for them to banish the ghosts of Rwanda by saving Muslims being ethnically cleansed from the anti-balaka?

This is not a problem of the past. It is a contemporary problem and must be addressed. Even if they did gravely miscalculate and were mistaken to supply a murderous regime, they still have blood on their hands and as yet have not investigated or even attempted to wash their hands of the accusations that they directly aided a genocidal regime. As such can the French government complain that history judges them so harshly in the wake of some of darkest moments in world history? The French people, Rwanda and the world need answers from a government’s unanswered questions.

Matthew Williams