April 21, 2014

GUARDADO | Understanding France’s Attitude Towards the 1994 Rwandan Genocide

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April 7 was the twentieth anniversary of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The solemn day was marked by ceremonies commemorating the 800,000 ethnic Tutsis who were murdered over a period of 100 days, along with speeches from world leaders, most notably U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. The day was also marked, however, by constant reminders that the genocide took place among an international community which had pledged not to allow such atrocities to happen again after the Holocaust. Rwanda has especially blamed France for “political preparation for the genocide,” saying that “French soldiers were both accomplices and ‘actors’ in the bloodbath.” Such an accusation has caused much diplomatic controversy, but given certain dark periods of French history, the statement carries even more weight than initially appears.

The German occupation during World War II was an especially difficult time, financially, morally and in all other respects for the French. The question of who was a collaborator and who was in the resistance haunted France and created an extremely tense atmosphere full of suspicion. Of course, the answer was never completely black or white, and it was often difficult to decide which acts classified as collaboration or resistance. Still, certain attitudes and initiatives adopted by the Vichy government, the puppet government installed in southern France, are extremely morally questionable.

The Vel d’Hiv Roundup exemplifies the extent to which the French police was willing to collaborate with the German forces. On July 16, 1942, about 13,000 Jewish men, women and children were rounded in Paris, transported to the winter cycling stadium (le Velodrome d’Hiver), and eventually deported to Auschwitz. As an article from the Warwick Knowledge Centre puts it, “The round-up operations of July 1942 were thus the culmination of Vichy’s anti-Semitic policies, carried out by the French police with the backing of German occupiers … The planning and execution of the operation was very much a French concern, with the final decisions to go ahead with the round-ups taken by the Vichy council of ministers.”

The period of German occupation is known as the dark years of modern French history not just because France was under foreign control; criticism is particularly aimed at the Vichy regime for cooperating the most out of all German-occupied countries (the majority of which exiled their governments to London) by signing an armistice and supporting Nazi policies.

In The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France Since 1944, French historian Henry Rousso argues, “Internal quarrels left deeper scars than either the defeat or the German occupation.” Here, Rousso describes the deep divide in French society between collaboration and resistantance. To further complicate the situation, some make the distinction between passivity and activity, which means that the decision not to participate in something can be aligned with collaboration or resistance just as much as active participation in either movement. The “Vichy syndrome” refers to collective memories of the occupation years that come up continuously, affecting modern French society in the way they have contributed to tension between Rwanda and France.

France’s experience during World War II does not excuse its callous behavior with Rwanda, but it provides insight into why it has been so resistant to the idea of an apology.  The themes of passivity versus activity certainly resonate with the 1994 genocide, where standing passively aside yields almost as much blame as being actively engaged.

Belgium’s apology to Rwanda and its decision to send a senior delegation to the commemorations stand in sharp contrast to France’s denial of the accusations and its decision pull the government out of the events and send only French ambassador Michel Flesch (though he was later denied entrance by the Rwandan government). It took French president Jacques Chirac 53 years to admit French involvement in the Vel d’Hiv roundup, so perhaps an apology for failing to stop the genocide is on the horizon.