Espérance Patureau has been waiting 27 years for France to take some responsibility. She lost 12 members of her family, including her parents, brothers and a two-month-old niece, in the atrocities of April 1994. Like many people, she believes French inaction was partly to blame. “The country chose to look away,” she says.
Last month, Patureau finally got her wish. French President Emmanuel Macron, on a visit to a genocide memorial in Rwanda, said his country bore “overwhelming responsibility” for failing to stop the killings of nearly 800,000 people, mostly minority Tutsis, at the hands of majority Hutu militants.
France's president at the time, Francois Mitterrand, had close ties to the Hutu-led government, and many felt that he could have intervened to stop the killings. French forces were eventually deployed two months after the slaughter began.
Patureau was living in Guinea at the time, having married a French man. She pleaded with the French Embassy there, the Red Cross and the UNHCR to help save her family, but to no avail.
Her nephew Serge Rugema survived the terror, and his family circumstances led to him being adopted by Patureau. Every year, around the anniversary of the genocide, he falls ill. “I think it’s because of the genocide that I get sick.” he says. “I wasn’t able to tell my friends what happened to me until I was in my 20s.”
The relationship between France and Rwanda fell apart after the genocide and the two countries severed diplomatic ties in 2006.
In 2010, then-president Nicolas Sarkozy acknowledged that France had made “grave errors”, but Macron has taken a bolder approach. In 2019, he ordered an investigation into what happened between 1990 - when France dispatched troops to Rwanda to intervene in a civil war between Hutu-led government forces and the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front backed by Tutsis - and when the genocide began. A commission analyzed around 8,000 classified documents and published its findings in March this year.
The report stated that the Mitterrand administration “demonstrated a continual blindness” in providing Rwanda’s Hutu-led regime with military support under the pretext of promoting democracy, allowing extremists to gain power. It also found France “reacted belatedly” after an initial unwillingness to intervene militarily when the massacre began. It was during that delay that the vast majority of the Tutsis were killed. The term “overwhelming responsibility” used by Macron came from the conclusion.
Historian Vincent Duclert, who led the team that compiled the report, says the document is indispensable if France and Africa are to build a future together.
“Reporting the truth about the dark page of the history was absolutely necessary. Pursuit of truth constitutes the greatness of a state,” he says. “France devastated the Rwandan people’s lives and ruined the country. On this point, France must apologize to the Rwandan citizens and survivors of the genocide.”
Over the past 20 years, Espérance has been traveling between France and Rwanda to support widows and orphans who survived the genocide. Watching President Macron deliver his speech in Rwanda was an emotional moment.
“He is the first French president who visited Rwanda solely for us,” she says. “The word Ibuka, which he used several times, means ‘never forget’ in the Rwandan language. This is a major step forward. I hope people now understand what we have been trying to say for 27 years is the truth.”