PARIS — After nearly three decades of recriminations over France’s role in Rwanda’s genocide of 1994, the leaders of the two countries on Thursday stood side by side in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, declaring a new chapter in their relations.
After laying a wreath at the Kigali Genocide Memorial and observing a minute of silence, President Emmanuel Macron of France said his country had “a duty to confront history and to recognize its part of the suffering it inflicted on the Rwandan people.” President Paul Kagame of Rwanda later said the visit was “about the future, not the past.”
Mr. Macron’s two-day visit to Rwanda was the fruit of a long and tortuous process of reconciliation between Rwanda and France, one that amounted to his most successful attempt at an often stated goal of finding friends and potential business partners in new corners of Africa as countries like China, Russia and Turkey compete for influence there.
It also clinched something far rarer: a shared understanding by an African nation and a former colonial power of a historical crime — the genocide that led to the deaths of 800,000 ethnic Tutsis. At a time when statues of colonial-era figures are being toppled in European cities, Mr. Macron has championed the re-examination of painful chapters of history as a way to reset relations with African nations, and he has found a willing partner in Mr. Kagame.
“A common history is now emerging,” said Vincent Duclert, a French historian who led the commission that produced a damning report on France’s role in the 1994 genocide for the French government. “There must be equality. Europe can no longer explain to Africa what it needs to know. It’s up to Africa to explain to Europe what it’s doing.”
France still derives much of its international standing from the influence it retains in its former African colonies. But Russia is expanding its presence in former French colonies like the Central African Republic and Madagascar. Russia and Turkey, France believes, are waging social media campaigns to inflame anticolonial sentiments against French interests in Africa.
China is grabbing more business interests in the Ivory Coast, the crown jewel in France’s former colonial empire. In a two-pronged challenge, China financed the construction of a $30 million Museum of Black Civilizations in Senegal that will house African art that was plundered by European colonial powers and is slowly being restituted. China also opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti and has invested heavily in the nation’s infrastructure, including upgrading ports and building a railroad extending into Ethiopia.
For Mr. Kagame, the rapprochement is expected to attract French investments and strengthen ties with other Francophone countries while reinforcing Rwanda’s policy of diversifying its alliances, said Jean-Paul Kimonyo, a former adviser to Mr. Kagame.
And it also burnishes his leadership at a time when people in Africa are clamoring for greater accountability from their leaders. Mr. Kagame’s once golden reputation has been tarnished in recent years as the Rwandan government faces scrutiny over its human rights record, its campaign of assassinations and kidnapping of exiled dissidents and its long entanglement in conflicts in neighboring states.
Mr. Macron, who has often said he is the first French president born after most of Africa gained its independence, also has much to gain from the reconciliation. He has talked about becoming interested in Africa after visiting Nigeria, a former British colony, in his early 20s, admiring the country’s energy and industriousness.
Experts say Mr. Macron is drawn the most to African countries with strong economic potential that happen to be outside France’s traditional sphere of influence.
“He despairs a little over the weight of French history in Africa because the economic reality for France on the African continent is focused less and less on Francophone Africa and more on East Africa — in countries like Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan — and in southern Africa,” said Roland Marchal, an expert on Africa at Sciences Po in Paris.
In 2019, Mr. Macron made a trip to the East Africa region as part of his overture to strengthen French diplomatic, economic and cultural ties in the region. In Ethiopia, he met with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, promised to fund the restoration of vital heritage sites and signed deals on military cooperation. In Kenya, Mr. Macron signed deals worth billions of dollars and promised to construct a commuter rail in the capital, Nairobi.
On this trip, Mr. Macron is flying to South Africa after Rwanda before returning to Paris, making no stops in any former French colony.
But even though he said he did not want France “to remain prisoner of our past” in an interview with the magazine Jeune Afrique last November, he has often found that is exactly the case. The country has become embroiled, for example, in an increasingly unpopular, eight-year war against Islamist militants in West Africa that has forced him to brush off coups in allies, like Mali, and to work with longtime autocrats.
Last month, one of France’s most important allies in the war, Idriss Déby, who had ruled ruthlessly over Chad since 1990, was killed and replaced by his son Mahamat. In a tableau that recalled the bad old days of what was known as “Françafrique,” Mr. Macron was the only Western leader to attend the funeral and sat in the front row, next to the son, while other African leaders sat behind them.
“It’s a sepia image — Macron always tries to wipe away the past with a magic slate, but France’s history in Africa always catches up with him,” said Antoine Glaser, the co-author of “The African Trap of Macron.”
France’s actions during the genocide, coupled with the inaction of the United States and other Western powers, had infuriated a generation of leaders in Rwanda and in the rest of Africa.
For Mr. Kagame and other Tutsi leaders, France had even greater responsibility because it had acted as the staunchest ally of the Hutu-led government responsible for the genocide.
For years, Mr. Kagame pulled his country, a former Belgian colony, away from France and moved closer to the United States, China, the Middle East and joined the British Commonwealth in 2009, even though it has no historical ties to Britain.
“It largely had to do with angering the French as Rwanda still held great animosity toward France’s involvement during the genocide,’’ said Jonathan R. Beloff, a visiting research fellow on the African Great Lakes region at King’s College London.
A Rwandan government report, published in April, stated that France played a “significant” role in “enabling a foreseeable genocide” and “did nothing to stop” the killings.
In March, a report commissioned by Mr. Macron and written by historians noted that France bore “overwhelming responsibilities” for the genocide, because it remained allied with the “racist, corrupt and violent” Hutu-led government even as those leaders prepared to slaughter the Tutsis.
The report, however, cleared the French of complicity in the genocide.
The findings set the stage for a series of quick developments, including a meeting between Mr. Kagame and former French Army officers during a visit to Paris this month, and now Mr. Macron’s two-day trip to Rwanda.
In Kigali, while Mr. Macron did not issue an apology to Rwanda, he said, “I’ve come to recognize our responsibilities.”
Mr. Kagame said the world should tackle “racism and genocide ideology” and said relations with France would grow stronger in coming years.
But some, in both Rwanda and France, were skeptical that the reconciliation would lead to a genuine new chapter in relations in Africa. French opposition officials had pressed Mr. Macron to issue a formal apology to Rwanda.
And in Rwanda, some had hoped that Mr. Macron would mention the Kagame government’s growing authoritarianism. In 2015, Mr. Kagame oversaw a referendum that led to a constitutional change that could keep him in power until 2034.
Criticism of Mr. Kagame has recently intensified with the case of Paul Rusesabagina, the hero of the Oscar-nominated film “Hotel Rwanda,” who was mysteriously taken back to Rwanda last year and is facing charges there, including of terrorism.
“While acknowledging the past is important, will President Macron also have the courage to condemn current human rights abuses in Rwanda, including the kidnapping and torture of my client?” Mr. Rusesabagina’s lawyer, Peter Choharis, said Thursday.
Norimitsu Onishi reported from Paris and Abdi Latif Dahir from Nairobi.