French President’s campaign to reveal the country’s sins in Africa

Peter Isackson, Fair Observer.

One of the worst humanitarian disasters of the past 30 years took place in 1994 in Rwanda. Approximately 800,000 people died in a genocidal campaign led by the Hutu majority against the Tutsi minority. The rampage began after Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down. The Hutus immediately blamed the Tutsis and initiated a “well-organized campaign of slaughter” that lasted several months. A new French report on the Rwandan genocide has revealed some uglier truths about the role played by Western powers — particularly France.

Since his election, French President Emmanuel Macron has demonstrated what some French patriots feel is a morbid curiosity about the history of France’s relations with the African continent. In the first three months of 2021, two reports by French historians tasked by Macron to tell the truth have been released. The first concerns France’s role in the Algerian War of Independence between 1954 and 1962, and the second, the Rwandan genocide.

Le Monde describes the 1,200-page Rwandan report as “solid, established by independent researchers and founded on newly opened archives.” Shortly after taking office in 2017, Macron asked historian Vincent Duclert to elucidate France’s role in the Rwandan genocide. Al Jazeera describes the report as criticizing “the French authorities under [Francois] Mitterrand for adopting a ‘binary view’ that set Habyarimana as a ‘Hutu ally’ against an ‘enemy’ of Tutsi forces backed by Uganda, and then offering military intervention only ‘belatedly’ when it was too late to halt the genocide.”

Contextual Note

In the aftermath of the genocide, analysts speculated about whom to blame, not only concerning the genocide itself but also the failure to prevent it from spinning out of control. As the leader of the nation whose role as “policeman of the world” became consolidated after the fall of the Soviet Union, US President Bill Clinton exhibited an apparent “indifference” to tribal slaughter in Africa. It included deliberate “efforts to constrain U.N. peacekeeping.” Canadian General Romeo Dallaire accused Clinton of establishing “a policy that he did not want to know,” even though since 1992, US intelligence had been aware of a serious Hutu plan to carry out genocide.

French President Francois Mitterand’s guilt, it now turns out, was far more patent and direct than Clinton’s. The historians who authored the French report call it “a defeat of thinking” on the part of an administration never held accountable for its “continual blindness of its support for a racist, corrupt and violent regime.” Astonishingly, the report reveals that “French intelligence knew it was Hutu extremists that shot President Habyarimana’s plane down, which was seen as the trigger for the genocide.” Le Monde attributes Mitterand’s blindness to his “personal relationship” with the slain Hutu president.

Historical Note

By sneaking through the gaping cracks in the traditional parties on the right and left to be elected president, Emmanuel Macron became the leader of a new party created for the purpose of providing him with a majority in the 2017 parliamentary election that followed his historic victory. As a political maverick, Macron felt himself liberated from at least some of the shackles of history.

He first dared to do what Fifth Republic presidents of the past had carefully avoided when, as a candidate, he attacked the very idea of colonization, which not only played an essential role in France’s past, but continued to produce its effects through the concept of Francafrique. In an interview in Algiers, the Algerian capital, early in the 2017 presidential campaign, Macron described colonization as a “genuinely barbaric” practice, adding that it “constitutes a part of our past that we have to confront by also apologising to those against whom we committed these acts.”

Politicians on the right predictably denounced what they qualified as Macron’s “hatred of our history, this perpetual repentance that is unworthy of a candidate for the presidency of the republic.” This is the usual complaint of the nationalist right in every Western nation. Recently, columnist Ben Weingarten complained that Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project for The New York Times Magazine was motivated by “hatred for America.” Patriots in every country tend to believe that exposing any embarrassing historical truth is tantamount to hate and intolerance of their own noble traditions. Telling the truth is treasonous.

In January 2021, the historian Benjamin Stora presented the report Macron commissioned him to produce on France’s historical relationship with Algeria. Stora proposed the “creation of a joint ‘Memory and Truth’ commission.” The report also recommended “restitution, recognition of certain crimes, publication of lists of the disappeared, access to archives” and “creation of places of memory.” Suddenly, Macron realized that he had received more than he bargained for. As the website JusticeInfo.net reported, “The French presidency said there was ‘no question of showing repentance’ or of ‘presenting an apology’ for the occupation of Algeria or the bloody eight-year war that ended 132 years of French rule.”

These two examples demonstrate France’s curious relationship with history. They also tell us about how powerful nations elaborate and execute their foreign policy. France is not alone. Every nation’s policy starts from a sense of national interest. The ensuing analysis begins by assessing threats to it. These may be military, economic or even cultural. In the case of military threat, the nation in question will be branded either an enemy or, if diplomatic politeness prevails, an adversary. When the discord is purely economic, the other nation will most likely be called a competitor or a rival. When the threat is cultural — as when Lebanon and Israel square off against each other about who makes the most authentic hummus — foreign policy experts will simply shut up and enjoy the show.

On the other hand, three forms of cultural competition — linguistic, tribal and religious rivalries — have real implications for the exercise of power and may seriously influence the perception of whether what is at stake is enmity, rivalry or friendly competition. The danger in such cases lies in confusing cultural frictions with political ambitions.

The two French reports reveal that the very idea of “national interest” may not be as innocent as it sounds. It can also mean “extranational indifference,” or worse. Indifference turns out to be not just a harmless alternative to the aggressive pursuit of national interest. In some cases, it translates as a convenient pretext for the toleration or even encouragement of brutally inhuman practices. That is why Rwanda may be a stain on both Francois Mitterand’s and Bill Clinton’s legacies.

Another feature of modern policy may appear less extreme than the tolerance of genocide while being just as deadly. As Noam ChomskyMedea Benjamin and Nicolas J.S. Davies and others have repeatedly asserted, the imposition of drastic sanctions has become a major weapon in the US foreign policy arsenal. Sanctions essentially and often sadistically target civilian populations with little effect on the targeted leaders. Sanctions have become an automatic reflex mobilized not just against enemies or rivals, but also against the economically disobedient, nations that purchase goods from the wrong designated supplier.

In 2012, Saeed Kamali Dehghan, writing for The Guardian, noted that the Obama administration’s sanctions on Iran were “pushing ordinary Iranians to the edge of poverty, destroying the quality of their lives, isolating them from the outside world and most importantly, blocking their path to democracy.” Nine years later, those sanctions were made more extreme under Donald Trump and continue unabated under President Joe Biden. All the consequences Dehghan listed have continued, with no effect on the hard-line Iranian regime’s hold on power. Can anyone pretend that such policies are consistent with a commitment to human rights? Do they reveal the existence of even an ounce of empathy for human beings other than one’s own voters?

The French at least have solicited truthful historical research about their past. But politicians like Macron, who have encouraged the research, inevitably turn out to be too embarrassed by the truth to seek any form of reparation. After commissioning it, they prefer to deny the need for it.

Peter Isackson is Fair Observer’s Chief Strategy Officer. For more than 30 years, Peter has dedicated himself to innovative publishing, coaching, consulting and learning management.

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