Rwandan leader comes to France for reconciliation visit

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President Paul Kagame of Rwanda was Sunday to begin his first visit to France since the 1994 genocide, striving to repair ties, despite controversy over Paris' role in his country's troubled past.

Kagame was due to meet Rwandan expats, French academics and businessmen as well as President Nicolas Sarkozy, who visited Rwanda in 2009 to kickstart a delicate reconciliation process that has raised hackles in France.

Many French generals and statesmen are still smarting after being accused by Kagame and his allies of collaborating with Rwanda's previous genocidal regime in its massacre of around 800,000 mainly ethnic Tutsis.

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.

"We are well aware that this visit won't please some people, but the president has decided to turn the page on France's painful relations with Rwanda," a senior official in Sarkozy's office told AFP.

Before the Rwandan party left Kigali, Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said the trip was "a step in the normalisation of relations" but warned that this "process does not happen in one day."

One sign of the tension is the absence during the visit of Mushikiwabo's French counterpart Alain Juppe, who was accused of complicity in the genocide by a Rwandan inquiry and has departed on a tour of the Pacific rim.

French generals have called Kagame's visit an insult to the honour of the French armed forces, and demanded that he withdraw the Mucyo inquiry's report, which they brand a lie, and which implicates several senior officers.

Rwanda is a former Belgian colony and its formerly French-speaking regime once had close ties with Paris. Kagame speaks English, and his Tutsi-led FPR government has closer ties to London and Washington.

These connections have suffered in recent years, however, amid criticism of his treatment of opposition dissent and allegations of rights abuses.

"This visit comes at a time when both sides are in a position of weakness," said Rwanda expert Andre Guichaoua, noting that Paris has seen its influence in the Great Lakes region collapse and Rwanda is more and more isolated.

Guichaoua said Kagame's position has been weakened by internal opposition and attacked by human rights groups for alleged abuses.

"When Rwanda is in difficulty, and its powerful friends (in London and Washington) distance themselves, he rediscovers France," he argued.

Kagame's first engagement on Sunday was to be with the Rwandan diaspora in Europe, with busloads of supporters being brought down from Belgium to join allies in the suburbs of Paris for a celebratory public meeting.

He is also expected to face protests during the trip from Rwandan opponents in exile, notably on Monday and Tuesday in Paris during his working meetings.

On Monday, he is to lunch with Sarkozy in the Elysee Palace, to "develop a partnership between our two countries and deepen our cooperation" in the words of Sarkozy's adviser.

Unlike Belgium, France has never apologised for failing to halt the killings, 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.

The controversial Mucyo report, firmly and furiously denied by Paris, alleges that French complicity went further than this, with French forces training and arming Hutu militias and taking part in murder and rape.

Several senior French officials from former governments of both right and left have never forgiven what they see as a slur, but since coming to power in 2007 Sarkozy has tried to turn the page and rebuild normal relations.

© 2011 AFP

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