France and Rwanda: Ghosts of genocide rattle relations

Monday April 19 2021

In this file photo taken on December 01, 2020 A general view of skulls of victims of the Tutsi genocide stored in a showcase in Gatwaro Genocide Memorial in Kibuye, western province of Rwanda, on December 1, 2020. A Rwandan priest, refugee and naturalized French, was indicted and imprisoned on April 16, 2021, accused, among other things, of having "provided food to the militiamen" who massacred Tutsi in his church in Rwanda in 1994, which he contests. PHOTO/AFP


France and Rwanda have had a stormy relationship since the 1994 genocide in the African nation.

A new report from Kigali finds France "bears significant responsibility" for enabling the genocide.

Here is a timeline of their fraught relations.

- 1990: French go in -

Rwanda's Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana calls for help from France and former colonial power Belgium to fight off Ugandan-based rebels from the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) led by Rwanda's current president, Paul Kagame.

Paris sends troops in what is called "Operation Noroit" in October, officially to protect its embassy and citizens there. But France also secretly helps train the Rwandan army.


- 1994: Genocide -

On April 6 Habyarimana is killed when his aircraft is shot down over Kigali.

The next day the genocide begins. From April to July 4 around 800,000 people are killed, most of them from the Tutsi minority, as well as moderate Hutus. 

The Tutsis are accused by the Hutu-dominated regime of colluding with the RPF, who had entered northern Rwanda from Uganda in 1990. 

Some 500 French paratroopers evacuate more than 1,000 French citizens and foreigners.

- Operation Turquoise - 

On June 22 the United Nations gives France the green light for Operation Turquoise, a military operation in Rwanda with humanitarian ends.

The mainly Tutsi RPF accuses France of seeking to save the Hutu regime and the perpetrators of the slaughter.

Some 2,500 French soldiers create a safe humanitarian zone in the south west, effectively hindering the RPF's advance but also allowing fleeing genocide suspects to hide. 

On July 4 the RPF seizes the capital Kigali, ending the genocide.

- 1998: French probe - 

A French parliamentary mission exonerates France from involvement in the genocide in December, but says it bears some responsibility due to strategic errors and "institutional dysfunction". 

Rwanda insists France is guilty of genocide crimes.


In this file photo taken on April 07, 2021 images of victims are displayed at the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda. France "bears significant responsibility" for enabling the genocide in Rwanda and still refuses to acknowledge its true role in the 1994 horror, said a report commissioned by Kigali that was released April 19, 2021. PHOTO/AFP

- 2006: Relations broken off - 

French judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere recommends President Kagame be prosecuted by the UN-backed tribunal trying Rwanda's genocide suspects for suspected participation in Habyarimana's assassination. He signs nine arrest warrants for Kagame's aides.

Rwanda breaks off diplomatic relations with France. Ties are not restored until November 2009.

- 2010: France admits mistakes - 

French president Nicolas Sarkozy acknowledges France made mistakes during the genocide. 

But he stops short of apologising during the first visit to Rwanda by a French president since the bloodbath.

In September 2011 Kagame makes his first official visit to France.

- 2014: French genocide trials - 

A French court sentences a former Rwandan army captain to 25 years in prison in the country's first trial linked to the genocide.

In July 2016 two former Rwandan mayors are sentenced to life in jail in France.

  - New Rwandan accusations - 

Twentieth anniversary commemorations of the genocide are held in Kigali in April 2014 without a French representative.

Kagame again accuses France of "participating" in the genocide.

- Detente -

President Emmanuel Macron hosts Kagame in Paris in May 2018, saying the normalisation of relations is under way but "will no doubt take time".

In December French judges drop a long-running investigation into the killing of Habyarimana. 

The probe had been a major source of tension between the two countries after seven people close to Kagame were charged.

In March this year a historical commission set up by Macron concludes in a damning report that France bears overwhelming responsibilities over the genocide and was "blind" to preparations for the massacres.

Kagame welcomes the report as an important step and says he is ready for a new phase in ties with France.

In April, a report commissioned by Kigali said France "was an indispensable collaborator in building the institutions that would become instruments of the genocide." 

"And still, it has not yet acknowledged that role or atoned for it," the report stated.