Kigali, Rwanda: French President Emmanuel Macron arrives in Rwanda on Thursday for a highly symbolic visit aimed at moving on from three decades of diplomatic tensions over France’s role in the 1994 genocide in the country.
Macron is the first French leader since 2010 to visit the East African nation, which has long accused France of complicity in the killing of some 800,000 mostly Tutsi Rwandans.
The key moment of the visit will come when Macron gives a speech Thursday morning at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, where some 250,000 victims of the massacres are buried.
Some in Rwanda will be hoping for an official apology that France failed to help stop the killing spree between April and July 1994.
“It would be a very good thing if Emmanuel Macron apologizes,” said Freddy Mutanguha, director of the Aegis Trust NGO which runs the Kigali memorial.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame has played down the importance of the issue, saying any apology on the matter had to be spontaneous.
Whatever the exact formulation of his words will be, Macron is expected to go further than his predecessors.
The president tweeted that as his flight took off for Kigali, he felt “a deep conviction: over the coming hours, together we will write a new chapter in our relations with Rwanda and Africa”.
“The president’s willingness to examine our history, our past, directly and transparently, is the best way to move forward,” said French government spokesman Gabriel Attal.
In 2010 Nicolas Sarkozy attempted to break the ice by admitting to “serious mistakes” and a “form of blindness” on the part of the French during the genocide.
His remarks fell short of expectations in Rwanda, and bilateral relations continued to fester.
However, ties have warmed under Macron, who has taken several steps to heal the wounds, including forming a commission led by historian Vincent Duclert into the role of France in the genocide.
The report accused Paris, which had close ties to the ethnic Hutu regime behind the massacres, of being “blind” to preparations for the genocide and said it bore “serious and overwhelming” responsibility.
The commission found no proof, however, of French complicity in the bloodshed.
A subsequent report commissioned by Kigali said the French government “bears significant responsibility” for enabling the genocide in Rwanda, yet refused to acknowledge its true role in the 1994 horror.
In an interview with the Jeune Afrique magazine, Kagame said that despite the slight differences in conclusions by the two commissions, “these reports lay down a solid foundation to build a better relationship between our two countries”.
To cement their rapprochement, Macron is expected to use the visit to name an ambassador to Rwanda, filling a post left vacant since 2015.
While Rwanda is often hailed as a success story for the comparative stability and economic growth achieved in the decades since the genocide, Kagame regularly comes under fire from rights groups for crushing dissent.
Kagame has been in power since the age of 36 when his Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebel army routed the genocidal forces and seized Kigali.
A 2015 constitutional amendment on term limits could allow him to potentially stay in office until 2034.
Two of Rwanda’s highest-profile opposition leaders on Tuesday accused Macron of ignoring political repression and rights abuses in their country.
“French President Emmanuel Macron does not hesitate publicly to bluntly castigate dictatorial regimes but keeps silent with regard to the authoritarian rule and human rights abuses by the Rwandan regime,” critics Victoire Ingabire and Bernard Ntaganda said in a statement.