France and Rwanda try to put genocide row behind them
Rwanda's President Paul Kagame and France's Nicolas Sarkozy staged a delicate diplomatic encounter in Paris on Monday, hoping to turn the page on 17 years of bitterness over the 1994 genocide.
The French president welcomed Kagame to the Elysee Palace on the second day of his three-day trip to the French capital, his first since his government accused Paris of complicity in the massacre of 800,000 ethnic Tutsis.
Kagame said he was no longer seeking a French apology for its alleged role in the killings -- which French officials have always denied -- and both men said they hoped their countries would enjoy warmer ties in future.
The only concrete measure to come out of the meeting was Sarkozy's vow to almost double France's development assistance from 22.7 million euros per year to 42.2 million, but Kagame hesitated to admit the trip was merely symbolic.
"Well, if symbolic means 'very important', I agree," he laughed, in an interview with AFP in the Paris Ritz. So the trip was for history and not for contracts? "Yes, but for the path to contracts."
Sarkozy's office said France stood by to help Rwanda develop geothermal and methane gas energy projects -- and hoped to start building a Franco-Rwandan cultural centre in Kigali before the start of next year.
"This is a new stage in the process of normalisation between the two countries, based on dialogue and mutual respect," the Elysee said, in a positive but cautiously-worded statement.
For his part, Kagame summarised the day to AFP by saying: "Really the whole purpose is to find ways of overcoming our differences over the past and going forward with a better relationship for the future."
"I'm happy to be here, and so far so good ... I'm happy," he added. "I asked for more trade, more partnership. The French are free to come and invest in Rwanda, in tourism, in general infrastructure and so on and so forth.
"And Rwandans are happy to come and do business in France," he said.
The visit was a tricky one for Sarkozy, who has made it clear that he wants to build on his own trip last year to Kigali to reconcile France with Rwanda but who faces much criticism at home for holding out a hand to Kagame.
Kagame's government has been accused by a French investigating judge of downing the former Rwandan president's plane, leaving two French pilots dead in an attack that was used as an excuse by the then regime to start the killings.
French officials and troops in their turn -- including two dozen named and very senior individuals -- have been accused in an official Rwandan report of complicity in mass murder and rape and in training Hutu militias.
Meanwhile, opposition and human rights groups accuse Kagame -- whose Tutsi rebel army overthrew the murderous Hutu government and brought the killing to an end -- of himself becoming more authoritarian in his 17 years of rule.
On a visit to the French Institute of International Affairs he clashed with rights activists who accuse him of imprisoning opponents and muzzling the media. He, in turn, accused them of ignoring the progress Rwanda has made.
Unlike Rwanda's former colonial ruler Belgium, France has never apologised for failing to halt the killing, but Sarkozy came close during his visit to Kigali in 2009, admitting Paris had a "kind of blindness" to the genocidal streak in the former regime.
But Kagame told AFP that he had not come to Paris seeking an apology, but simply a renewal of normal ties and an opportunity to look to the future.
© 2011 AFP