KAMPALA Uganda—French President Emmanuel Macron publicly acknowledged his country’s “terrible responsibility” in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide and asked for forgiveness in a bid to reset relations during the first visit by a French leader to the East African nation in more than a decade.
In a sober statement at the Gisozi genocide memorial in the capital, Kigali, where nearly a third of the 800,000 victims are buried, Mr. Macron said that France made errors of judgment in standing by a genocidal regime during the 100 days of massacres.
“France has political responsibility in Rwanda, it has a duty to recognize the share of the suffering it inflicted on the Rwandan people,” Mr. Macron said, shortly after laying a wreath at the memorial. “I have come to recognize our responsibilities; only those who survived can perhaps forgive.”
While Mr. Macron’s remarks fell short of a full apology, his focus on victims and survivors underscored France’s continuing efforts to thaw three decades of frozen relations with Kigali. Mr. Macron’s televised remarks were also received favorably across most of Rwanda, where media is tightly controlled.
“It’s a historic turning point,” said Kanimba Joseph, a 37-year-old genocide survivor from Kigali, who lost both parents in the killings. “By accepting responsibility France is healing a lot of wounds.”
Since 1994, the question of alleged complicity in the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda has haunted French governments. Mr. Macron, who has made resetting relations with African nations a centerpiece of his foreign policy, commissioned a report in 2019 in an attempt to shed light on his country’s role in the killings.
The report, published in March this year, found that France was blind to genocide preparations by its allied government of President Juvénal Habyarimana that came to be dominated by extremists from the Hutu ethnic group, who carried out the killings. French forces were also slow to react once the slaughter of ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus began, it added.
Yet the report, compiled by 15 historians with unprecedented access to French government archives, found no evidence of France’s direct complicity in the genocide. A separate report by Paris prosecutors, published earlier this month, also stopped short of concluding government complicity in the genocide.
The genocide was sparked by the shooting down of a plane carrying Mr. Habyarimana in April 1994 and didn’t stop until mid-July that year, during which some 800,000 people were killed. French troops led a United Nations humanitarian intervention named Operation Turquoise from June to August 1994 at the height of the genocide.
The killings were halted after Paul Kagame, then a rebel commander and now Rwanda’s president, led a rebel force that captured Kigali in July 1994. The 63-year-old has since steered the once-shattered nation to become an economic powerhouse in the region, although rights groups accuse him of authoritarianism and human rights abuses.
Asked about the survivors’ wish for a more straightforward apology, Mr. Macron on Thursday said: “I don’t think ‘apologies’ is the appropriate term. This acknowledgment is what I can give. Forgiveness, it’s not for me to give, I can only hope for it.”
On Thursday, Mr. Kagame hailed Mr. Macron.
“This visit is about the future, not the past,” he said. “This is an act of tremendous courage.”
In France, far-right leader Marine Le Pen said Mr. Macron’s speech was an insult to all French people, the army and workers at non-governmental organizations who tried to save and protect victims of the genocide.
“France is respected when she stands tall,” Ms. Le Pen said in a statement. “Not when she flagellates herself for faults that are not her own.”
Bilateral relations were given a significant boost last year when French police arrested Félicien Kabuga, the alleged financier of the Rwandan genocide, at an apartment near Paris, ending a manhunt that lasted more than two decades. The 84-year-old was also one of the alleged operators of Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, a radio station that was used to fan hatred and incite the genocide.
Even some of Mr. Kagame’s staunchest critics appeared encouraged by thawing relations with France, but urged Mr. Macron and other international donors to pay more attention to allegations of rights abuses and political persecution in Rwanda.
“France is known as cradle of human rights and Rwanda, led by Kagame, has been lacking those values,” Victoire Ingabire, Rwanda’s main opposition leader, said. “France should support Rwanda in understanding how to govern well and respecting human rights.”
—Noemie Bisserbe in Paris contributed to this article.
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