PARIS — From Vichy France to the Algerian War, the demand that France “open the archives” resonates every time the country struggles with one of its “pasts that don’t pass.” Twenty years after the Rwandan genocide of the Tutsi people, researchers are once again singing this refrain, especially in light of the provocative declarations from Rwandan President Paul Kagame accusing France of involvement in the tragedy.
In France, the genocide’s anniversary has reignited an ideological war. There are those who wish to acknowledge, no matter what, the fact that France holds some culpability. Others wish to claim no responsibility, regardless of the facts. It’s a dead-end debate in which the fate of the Tutsi often serves as a pretext to renew quintessentially French debates on colonialism and the role of the army, or to harness the role of Former French President François Mitterrand.
If indeed opening the archives is necessary, it is neither to make amends nor to retrace one of the so-called conspiracies that so agitate the protagonists of this very French dispute: For some, it is the “conspiracy” hatched by the French executive and army to maintain Rwanda in the French “sphere of influence;” for others, it is the Anglo-Saxon conspiracy to take control of French-speaking Rwanda and extend the humiliation inflicted to France in Fashoda, over a century ago.
The Elysée’s blind eye
It is also, of course, not about questioning the reality of the systematic extermination of 800,000 Tutsi. But it is about moving from the obsession of denunciation to the research of facts — and understanding them. It is still necessary to shed light on two complex questions:
• Has a concerted approach to genocide ever existed? The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has not been able to prove it. In the absence of an event comparable to the 1942 Wannsee Conference for the genocide of Jews, it remains necessary to analyze the individual and collective mechanisms that led to the genocide. Was it the practical application of a program, or was it the result of a chain of events? These mechanisms are also the subject of debate concerning the Holocaust.
• To what extent did France assist the genocidal regime before and during the tragedy? Why did French soldiers take so long to intervene and fail to save 2,000 pursued Tutsi in Bisesero, in late June 1994? Why did the United Nations pull out in the middle of genocide? Why did it refuse to investigate the attack against President Habyarimana’s airplane?
A lot has already been published about it, including the report of the 1998 Quilès parliamentary mission that succeeded in declassifying 3,500 documents. Other documents, stemming from the investigation on “complicity in genocide” launched in Paris against French soldiers following a complaint by Tutsi survivors, were published in Le Monde in July 2007. They reveal to what extent the Elysée turned a blind eye to signs that heralded the massacres.
Avoiding “sheer denunciation”
But, as historians explain, it is not enough to make available documents whose existence are already known, and to meet the demands of the magistrates. It is also necessary to open to researchers all the French public archives on Rwanda — military or otherwise —that are currently covered by the 25 or 50 year-long legal prescription.
As former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin did in 2001 for the Algerian War archives, such a decision by the French government today would be honorable. “Many military people have been traumatized by Rwanda,” says Claudine Vidal, a sociologist and expert on Rwanda. “Disclosing everything would be in the army’s interest.” But, she says, it is important to “filter the demands in order not to let the people whose main motive is sheer denunciation do anything they want.”
In this context, an international action would allow things to move forward. “The United States, Great Britain, South Africa and Uganda are also involved, not to mention the exceptional archives of Habyarimana’s regime that Rwanda has,” says André Guichaoua, a university professor and genocide expert.
In 2008, Paul Quilès asked the UN secretary-general to carry out an independent international expert assessment. To no avail. “The ideal would be that France and Rwanda agree on experts capable of producing a common history,” says Filip Reyntjens, a professor of African politics at the University of Antwerp. But he knows such a proposition is currently unrealizable, since the “truths” put forward by every country whose interest it is to support them are divergent.
A glimmer of hope could come from the United States, where many Ph.D. students are working and publishing works on Rwanda as part of exchanges promoted after 1994 by Washington and the new regime. As was the case for the Vichy regime in the 1970s, a revised account of France's involvment in Rwanda could come from a new generation of very demanding researchers, who could obtain the promising disclosure of the archives of their own country.