In a shadowy area of recent French history, the ideological battle over a wound that has yet to heal remains ongoing. Ranged against each other, two camps of intellectuals, politicians and activists who are at war over a question that is as simple as it is terrible: is France in part to blame for the Rwandan genocide which claimed 800,000 lives in one month?

Close to 18 years after the massacre, the question remains the subject of virulent controversy, which says as much about internal political divides in France as it does about the 1994 genocide itself.

No other recent event has resulted in such entrenched positions, personal hatreds, and such a level of verbal fury: not even Bosnia or Kosovo. You have to go back to the Algerian war — or, to a lesser degree, refer to the Palestinian question — to find such serious allegations, and such a rift between two camps, which in this case can be roughly designated as “anti-France” against “eternal France."

The crime and the accusation are so enormous that certain actors appear to have lost their reason in their quest for definitive truth. Journalists and activists have assumed the role of police investigators, judges have donned the mantle of historians, while historians have masqueraded as investigative journalists: is Rwanda reponsible for such madness?

Irreconcilable theories

Clearly it has been the cause of serious lapses in the sanity of those whose desire to see historical truth coincide with their personal convictions has become an obsession. While the question of French “complicity” in the genocide constitutes the veritable epicentre of this controversy, for some time now, attention has shifted to another essential question which is both spectacular and overwhelmingly reductive with regard to the genocide itself: who shot down the plane, whose crash on 6 April 1994, led to the death of the Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana? Was it a Hutu attack? It is as though this event, which has been described as the “trigger” for the massacre, has assumed greater importance than the genocide itself.

Now French judge Marc Trévidic's investigation of the crash, which marked the beginning of the Tutsi genocide, has ushered in a completely new phase in the controversy. In 2006, a previous French judge, Jean-Louis Bruguière, who never travelled to Rwanda, singled out Paul Kagamé, the then Uganda based leader of the Tutsi rebellion, who has since become the President of Rwanda, as the perpetrator.

However, analysis of evidence in Kigali under the supervision of Judge Trévidic, who has succeeded Jean-Louis Bruguière, now appears to incriminate the opposing camp. According to Trévidic’s report published on 10 January, Hutu extremists were responsible for the assassination of their own president, whom they suspected of accepting a power sharing deal at the summit in Arusha (Tanzania), which he attended just before the attack on 6 April.

These two diametrically opposed “truths” established by successive implementations of the same judicial procedure also reflect the irreconcilable theories supported by the two camps that have emerged in public debate on the issue in France.

Alternative visions of France’s role in Africa

The controversy has also extended to the link between the attack and the subsequent genocide. Curiously, the focus on the crash, which claimed 12 victims, has almost succeeded in relegating the massacre of 800,000 people to the status of a background issue. Although historians have established that the extermination of the Tutsi minority had been planned (lists were drafted, there were calls on the radio for the extermination of Tutsis, and the extremist Interahamwe Hutu militia which played major role in the genocide had been trained for that purpose), the pro-Bruguière camp has persistently insisted that the attack was the essential or even the only cause of the massacres, which were “a response” to the death of Habyarimana.

Imperceptibly, the mystery of the attack has been transposed into the mystery of the perpetrators of the genocide. Those who refuse to apportion any blame to France insist that Paul Kagamé was not only responsible for the assassination of Habyarimana, but also for the genocide of his own people. As Judge Bruguière stated in his November 2006 order, a document which went beyond the usual judicial framework to indulge in historical analysis more typical of a political pamphlet, the current Rwandan President chose to sacrifice the Tutsi who had remained in the country so as to conquer power.

The French officers who were active in Rwanda and their supporters in the media and politics, figures like Bernard Debré, Hubert Védrine and Pierre Péan, detest the current Kagamé regime. And they hardly appreciated the resumption of diplomatic contact orchestrated by the then foreign minister Bernard Kouchner in February 2010, which saw Nicolas Sarkozy travel to Kigali to acknowledge that France “had made mistakes with regard to the appreciation and the politics” of the situation in Rwanda.

These two “historical interpretations” have resulted in the creation of two opposed camps, with alternative visions of France’s role in Africa, in the world and in history. The Rwandan affair is in many ways reminiscent of the war in Algeria. It raises similar issues that focus on the relationship between the state and the military: the difference between a colonial war and a “campaign to maintain law and order” (Algeria), the nature of support “to a friendly regime attacked by rebels” (Rwanda), the rivalry with Anglophone powers in Africa, known as the “Fashoda syndrome,” in reference to the 1898 diplomatic incident in Sudan, which is remembered as a symbol of British humiliation of France.

Complicity of France’s political elite with colonial power

The immense human tragedies of Algeria and Rwanda finally resulted in the fiasco of a major loss of influence for Paris in strategic areas where it had battled to maintain its presence.

To schematize, the anti-Kagame camp is made up of proponents of a “civilising” and irreproachable France, which believes it has a specific mission in an Africa under siege from Anglophone imperialists.

On the other hand, those who hold France responsible for the Rwandan genocide point to the army’s role in the quelling of uprisings in Indochina, Rwanda, Algeria and also Cameroon, and highlight the complicity of France’s political elite with colonial power and its contemporary manifestation in the shape of Françafrique.

These controversies are not only a reflection of the elite’s marked preference for simple “truths,” but also of the twists and turns in the judicial investigation in Kigali. And in this context, we can only hope that Judge Trévidic will establish some scientific truth on this point. However, notwithstanding the outcome of the investigation, France’s politicians and the French army will have to come to terms with the need for transparency on this other “unacceptable past”.