Remembering the complicity of French imperialism in the Rwandan genocide 30 years on

Three decades ago, between April and July 1994, the Rwandan government organised the extermination of almost 1 million people belonging to the Tutsi ethnic group. This genocide was aided and abetted by the French government, which both financed and armed those responsible, often referred to as ‘génocidaires’. But still, to this day, the French ruling class has not fully and openly recognised its responsibility for one of the most monstrous crimes of French imperialism.


[Originally published in French at]

Hutus and Tutsis

The distinction between the Hutus and the Tutsis was originally rooted in the relations of production of precolonial Rwanda. It seems that these terms designated distinct social categories more than ethnic groups. The Hutus, who formed the majority of the population, tended to be cultivators of the soil, whereas the Tutsis were mainly cattle breeders, who also constituted the biggest part of the ruling class.

When German, and later Belgian, imperialism took control of the region, the colonisers rested on the pre-existing local power, which was dominated by Tutsis. Conforming to the old principle of ‘divide and rule’, they presented the Tutsis as a ‘race’ originating from North Africa, and superior to the ‘indigenous’ Hutus. This racist hierarchy was taught in schools run by Catholic missionaries, where Hutu children ‘learned’ that they were inferior to the Tutsis. In 1931, the colonial administration introduced a system of identity passes, which indicated the carrier’s identity. Remaining in place until 2003, this system facilitated the work of the génocidaires in 1994.

In the 1950s, an independence movement began to develop in Rwanda. As in the majority of colonised countries, this liberation movement expressed itself most notably amongst the petty bourgeoisie and educated layers, which were principally composed of Tutsis. In reaction to this movement, Belgian imperialism changed tack and began to favour the development of a new Hutu elite.

In November 1959, the Hutu population rose up against the power of the Tutsis with the support of the colonial power, Belgium, which cynically accused the Tutsis of oppressing the Hutus. Rwanda was then plunged into a short civil war, which culminated in the rise to power of Grégoire Kayibanda, a Hutu. Fleeing persecution, hundreds of thousands of Tutsis emigrated, to Uganda in particular. Supported by Belgium and the Catholic Church, Kayibanda established a brutal dictatorship, which maintained the ‘ethnic’ division installed by Belgian imperialism.

After it gained independence in 1962, Rwanda fell progressively under the domination of French imperialism. This changed nothing about the racist policy of the regime. At the beginning of the 1970s, to divert the anger of the masses that had been building up against his regime, Kayibanda launched a new wave of persecution against the Tutsis, who fled the country in their thousands.

In July 1973, a coup d’état placed Juvénal Habyarimana in power with the support of French imperialism. Habyarimana continued to use the Tutsis as scapegoats, while the country faced more and more economic and social problems from the 1980s onwards, when falls in the prices of coffee and tin struck the Rwandan economy.

The war of 1990-1993

In 1987, Tutsis living in exile and Hutus opposed to the Habyarimana regime founded the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in Uganda, demanding an end to discrimination against Tutsis. Confronted by an increasingly discredited regime, the RPF established an armed wing, and on 1 October 1990, its fighters crossed into Rwanda from Uganda and took control of several regions on the border. Seized with panic, the Rwandan regime immediately demanded the aid of French imperialism.

The French imperialists also had to show that they were prepared to defend those regimes that remained loyal to them / Image: public domain

For Paris, Rwanda was of great importance, due in part to its natural resources, but above all because of its strategic position in a region dominated by US imperialism. The RPF, whose leaders were educated in the United States and had established their rear bases in Anglophone Uganda, was perceived by the French government as a pawn of Washington and a threat to French interests in Central Africa. The French imperialists also had to show that they were prepared to defend those regimes that remained loyal to them, to dissuade them from looking for other protectors. François Mitterand, the French president and a personal friend of Habyarimana, was one of the most fervent advocates of unconditional support for the Hutu nationalists.

The French government therefore responded favourably to the Rwandan leaders’ appeal for aid: it sent them both arms and military instructors. A contingent of several hundred French soldiers was despatched to Kigali (the Rwandan capital), officially to “protect Western nationals”. In reality, the French soldiers were integrated into all levels of the Rwandan army and participated directly in combat with the RPF. They were also witnesses – and at times accomplices – of the massacre of Tutsi civilians.

In order to rally the Hutu population behind it, the Rwandan government accused the RPF and the Tutsis of wanting to kill the Hutus in order to seize their land. The excesses committed by RPF guerillas during its offensive only helped the government propaganda. Faithful to the counter-guerilla methods it had been taught by French instructors, the Rwandan army distributed radios in villages throughout the country to ensure the spread of its propaganda.

A never-ending avalanche of hate was broadcast over the airwaves, calling the Tutsis 'cockroaches’ and ‘the enemy within’. The regime also organised the formation of militias, who roamed from village to village, carrying out a campaign of murder. According to some witnesses, these militias had received training from French instructors. Throughout the war, the French intelligence services kept the government regularly informed of the massacres being carried out by the Habyarimana regime.

The Arusha Accords and the genocide

In August 1993, the Arusha Peace Accords were signed by the RPF and the Rwandan government in Arusha, Tanzania – with the approval of French imperialism, which was striving to retain control of the country while ending a costly war. These accords provided for the departure of French troops, the return of Tutsi exiles, the formation of a government composed of both Hutus and Tutis, as well as the ‘fusion’ of pro-government and RPF troops into a single Rwandan army. This compromise provoked rage from Hutu extremists, who accused Habyarimana of having capitulated to the RPF, and openly called for a ‘final solution’ for the ‘Tutsi problem’. The majority of French troops left Rwanda in December 1993, but the remaining points of the accords were not respected by the Rwandan government.

On 6 April 1994, the plane carrying Habyarimana back to the capital, Kigali, was hit by a missile. There were no survivors and the exact location from which the missile was launched has never been clearly established. Hutu nationalists, but also the French judge, Bruguière, have claimed that the RPF was responsible. But over time, more and more proof – particularly documents declassified by the French secret services – has pointed in the direction of Hutu extremists, who wanted to kill Habyarimana in order to torpedo the Arusha Accords once and for all.

Barely minutes after the attack, the Rwandan army and Hutu militias occupied the streets of Kigali. ‘Moderate’ Hutu leaders, such as the prime minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, were assassinated. A new government, composed of Hutu extremists, was proclaimed from the French embassy. Calls for the massacre of the Tutsi were launched on the radio. The genocide began the same evening.

Driven into stadiums, churches and schools, the Tutsis were systematically massacred. The army and militias blockaded the roads to intercept anyone who tried to flee. In the villages, the population, bludgeoned for years with anti-Tutsi propaganda, was mobilised to participate actively in the genocide. Those Hutus who refused to participate in the hunt for Tutsis – often their neighbours or family members – were themselves murdered. But despite everything, a number of Hutus refused to participate in the genocide and did what they could to help Tutsis escape.

France protects the ‘génocidaires’

french soldier Image public domainThe French government and general staff were perfectly aware of the events / Image: public domain

As the genocide was unfolding before the eyes of French diplomats and soldiers still present in Rwanda, François Mitterrand and his right-wing prime minister, Edouard Balladur, continued to support the Hutu regime, notably by providing it with arms. On 15 June 1994, while images from the genocide were circulating around the world, Mitterand announced that almost 2,500 French soldiers would be sent to Rwanda, officially to “protect the civilian population”. In reality, this intervention was intended above all to contain the RPF, which had resumed its offensive and was gaining ground.

The French government and general staff were perfectly aware of the events, but they minimised their enormity and reduced this genocide to “reciprocal violence” between the two communities. When French soldiers demanded authorisation to intervene, in order to end the killing of civilians, their officers forbade it, and only a few dared disobey.

Despite the direct intervention of French troops, the RPF eventually seized Kigali on 4 July. Meanwhile, the remnants of the Rwandan army and the Hutu militias who had escaped the RPF advance fled into Zaïre (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), under the protection of French troops. In full knowledge of the facts, the French government helped the organisers of the genocide to escape abroad.

Along the way, the Rwandan army forced many Hutu civilians to join its flight. Almost 2 million people ended up in refugee camps in Zaïre. There, the Hutu leaders organised new militias to prepare for a hypothetical ‘reconquest’ of Rwanda. Scandalously, these genocidal criminals received assistance once more from France, which provided them with weapons. And although the plan to reconquer Rwanda never came to fruition, these militias still played an important role in the wars that devastated the Congo from 1996 onwards.

After having denied for so long its overwhelming responsibility for the genocide of the Tutsis, the French state finally accepted it only half-heartedly. But contrary to the story told by politicians today, the criminal behaviour of the French state during the Rwandan genocide was neither an accident, nor the fruit of the ignorance of a few leaders. In supporting a genocidal regime, then in its attempt to hide all traces of its crimes, French imperialism was defending its fundamental interests. It wanted to preserve its control of Rwanda at all costs.

Since then, the methods of French imperialism have not changed. In the Central African Republic and in Mali during the 2010s, French soldiers supervised and trained armies or militias that carried out ethnically targeted massacres. In 2018, in Mali, hundreds of members of the Peul ethnic group were massacred by militias trained by the pro-French regime, then led by Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta – and protected by French soldiers as part of Operation ‘Barkhane’.

As long as capitalism and imperialism continue to dominate the planet, the workers and poor of the oppressed countries will have to pay in blood and suffering for the profits of a handful of billionaires.

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