Short Cuts

Jeremy Harding

France has been struggling with its image abroad on several counts. First, there’s the rise in anti-semitism and the corresponding exodus of French Jews. Second, there is Le Pen’s success in the first round of the presidentials two years ago, which still sends a chill through the most rosy-cheeked francophiles, whether they’re British trenchermen or Latin American bellettrists. Finally, there is Chirac’s refusal to ride to war with Bush in 2003, for which admirers of the coalition can’t forgive him.

The famous website www.fuckfrance.com, which whips up a gale of garbage in the landfills of US public opinion, goes from strength to strength. The economy of Froggystan is shot; Old Europe is shot too; the ‘stinkies’ allow marriage for gays; they want Bush out of the White House: ‘Hey Froggys, still stroking off to the possibility of a Kerry presidency?’ And if the breaking news is too exciting for fuckfrance fans, the site will always post a historic victory to calm them down: ‘Fuck José Bové – McDonald’s flourishes in France’.

At the time of writing, France’s role in Rwanda continues to escape the attentions of fuckfrance. But the tenth anniversary of the genocide last month raised the issue again in Paris. Things did not go well. For a start there was a muddled message as to who, exactly, would be involved in the minute’s silence on 7 April in memory of the Rwandan dead. At first it was thought the whole of the civil service was to observe it, but it turned out that only the Quai d’Orsay and Chirac need bother. Then reports came through from Kigali that the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, had used his commemorative speech to accuse France of complicity in the genocide, whereupon the French deputy foreign minister – no high-level delegations to Kigali, thank you – ended his visit ‘sooner than expected’.

A minute’s silence is no great effort for a country that has been so reticent about its support for the regime in power in Kigali ten years ago. You can pick up the story almost anywhere, but 1990 is a good place to start, with the (Tutsi) RPF launching its offensive from bases in Uganda and the French arriving in Rwanda to support the (Hutu) government. That was Operation Noroît. On paper it was a military mission to protect French expatriates, mainly in Kigali.

The Noroît contingents left Rwanda in 1993, but it is now accepted by most of the French press that arms were supplied to the Hutu government during the genocide of April-July 1994. It’s also alleged by some that after the plane of the Rwandan president, Juvénal Habyarimana, was brought down on 6 April, a handful of French military advisers were still on hand to help in the killing of opposition leaders in Kigali. By July, with half a million dead and more to come, Mitterrand – who used to dine out with Habyarimana – seems to have believed about Rwanda that ‘in those kinds of countries, a genocide isn’t so important.’ The quotation appeared in Le Figaro in 1998, two years after Mitterrand’s death.

In June 1994, France persuaded the UN to authorise a new all-French ‘humanitarian’ mission (Operation Turquoise): the RPF were by now moving very fast towards Kigali and the Hutu regime was crumbling. The UN had failed to do anything much in or about Rwanda (see also the Congo, Palestine, South Africa, Angola, Sudan, Western Sahara, Eritrea, Bosnia etc), and it would have looked churlish not to let someone fill the gaps.

What happened next is told by Roméo Dallaire, the Canadian UN force commander in Rwanda during the genocide, in Shake Hands with the Devil (Random House, $25.95). The Hutu army went ‘mad with joy at the prospect of imminent rescue by the French. Their renewed hope and confidence had the side-effect of reviving their hunt for genocide survivors’ (the RPF offensive had diverted them). ‘The génocidaires,’ Dallaire says, ‘believed . . . that they now had carte blanche to finish their gruesome work.’

‘Turquoise’ deployed too late to hold up the RPF advance – one of its main objectives – but it did create a safe zone for the retreating Hutu army and the Interahamwe militias to carry out more killings, as they prepared to cross into Zaire with many of their weapons and with their structures intact. The chaos that followed has not let up: it’s known as the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Cold War alignments go some way to explain French ties with the Hutu regime in Rwanda. But France’s Cold War was not as clear-cut as that of the other major powers. ‘La francophonie’ was an overriding consideration. Many Tutsi refugees from various waves of Hutu persecution were in English-speaking Uganda, which looked well on the RPF, an organisation created two years after the Hutu regime declared that there’d be no Tutsi repatriations because Rwanda was ‘too small’. A military victory for the RPF – with its understandable hostility to France – was perceived as a threat to French prestige in Africa. And so it has turned out. But the association with the RPF’s adversaries has done it greater harm. Mitterrand is long gone, but Agathe Kanziga – Habyarimana’s wife and one of the great Hutu ideologues – still has a flat in Paris. Some forty senior pro-exterminationists were evacuated by the French as the genocide began.

When fuckfrance finally runs Rwanda blurbs on its site, it’s unlikely to dwell on Dallaire’s observation that the French learned a lesson in their humanitarian zone. ‘While I feel no inclination to be generous in interpreting the motives of the French military,’ he writes, ‘I honestly believe that their subsequent face-to-face encounters with the reality of the genocide brought most of them to their senses . . . As Operation Turquoise continued, more and more French soldiers . . . became disgusted with their role in Rwanda.’ Soldiers tend to have their wits about them. It was a one-time soldier who pulled the French out of Algeria.