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Tuesday, April 21, 1998 Published at 17:25 GMT 18:25 UK

World: Analysis

France's contentious African role

Rwandan refugees fleeing the capital, Kigali, during the civil conflict

A French parliamentary enquiry has been hearing evidence from former conservative Prime Minister Edouard Balladur about France's role in Rwanda, which was the scene of genocide four years ago. Mr Balladur has firmly rebuffed charges that France should shoulder some of the guilt for the massacres. BBC analyst Jonathan Fryer analyses the controversy within the wider context of France's prominent role in Africa.

France was one of the major beneficiaries of the late 19th century European "Scramble for Africa", when colonial powers established or reinforced direct or indirect control over almost the entire continent.

At its zenith, France's African empire embraced a majority of the northern and western territories.

Rwanda was never part of the French empire. But like other former Belgian possessions - such as the Democratic Republic of Congo - it became part of France's area of geo-political concern when the Belgians left, not least when the late Socialist President Francois Mitterrand was in power. Mitterrand was keen to prevent the spread of English-language influence.

At issue in the inquiry is the role France played in the genocide in Rwanda four years ago.

Between half a million and a million Rwandans died in the slaughter, most of them from the minority Tutsi community.

Newspapers raise concerns

The parliamentarians' disquiet was largely stimulated by a series of articles that have appeared this year in the conservative French newspaper Le Figaro.

These have suggested that the French ignored warnings of possible genocide by Rwanda's majority Hutu community against the Tutsis. They also allegedly continued covertly to supply arms to the then Hutu-dominated Rwanda government even after the killings began.

The current President of the Tutsi-dominated government in Rwanda, Pasteur Bizimungu, believes that European countries - and particlarly France - need to co-operate in establishing exactly what happened, and why:

"When we evoke the responsibility of some European countries, we don't want confrontation. We want to point out that there is a legacy of the policy which has been applied in this country. And we want to associate them to finding solutions to the problems that they have caused."

Now that politicans are appearing as witnesses, the parliamentary inquiry in Paris has reached a crucial stage. Sharon Courtoux of Survie, an aid agency which operates in central Africa, says: "The important aspect is to see what the members of the commission of enquiry are going to ask them."

"If they ask good questions, then we will be able to see whether the answers are given or not. If the Members of Pariament don't ask good questions, they won't get any answers. And that we will also be able to see."

France did try to help

Eduoard Balladur insisted today that France had nothing to feel guilty about.

And he pointed out that it was France which intervened while the rest of the international community dithered in the wake of the Rwandan massacres, when it was the Hutus who became the target of Tutsi reprisals.

[ image: President Habayarimana: assassinated in 1994]
President Habayarimana: assassinated in 1994
France set up a safe zone in Rwanda, into which hundreds of thousands of predominantly Hutu refgugees fled, before moving on to then then Zaire.

However, French newspaper reports have suggested that France was maybe the country of origin of the missiles with which unidentified assailants in April 1994 shot down a plane carrying the then President of Rwanda, Juvenal Habyarimana, and his Burundian counterpart, Cyprien Ntaryamira, killing them both.

That incident triggered off the massacres.

Doing nothing may have contributed

What is more, newspaper reports have suggested that French troops did not intervene when they could have prevented some of the massacres taking place.

According to one expert at enquiry, it is not so much that France took an active role in the genocide, but that it did nothing to discourage its friends in Rwanda when it knew what was going on.

It is likely to be some time before the full truth is known, if ever.

But this Rwandan controversy is bound to give added urgency and weight to the review of France's role in Africa that has been going on since President Jacques Chirac came to power.

Mr Chirac has assured African governments that he is as concerned as his predecessors were to maintain a special relationship with them.

But it would appear that a growing number of politicians and senior advisors in Paris have decided that too close an involvement in Africa's affairs brings more trouble than it is worth.

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