President Nicolas Sarkozy admitted yesterday that French "errors" had contributed to the Rwandan genocide which killed an estimated 800,000 people in 1994.
On the first visit by a French leader to Rwanda for 25 years, Mr Sarkozy did not formally apologise. Nor did he accept allegations that France had played an active role in training and arming the Hutu militias and troops who led massacres of Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
But he suggested that the entire international community – and France in particular – should accept that its response had been culpably weak. "What happened here is a defeat for humanity," Mr Sarkozy said. "What happened here left an indelible stain. What happened here obliges the international community – including France – to reflect on the errors which prevented us from foreseeing, or stopping, this appalling crime."
Previously France has always insisted that it could not have foreseen the genocide and that the intervention of its troops helped to save many Hutu and Tutsi lives. Mr Sarkozy's visit to Kigali, and joint press conference with the Rwandan President Paul Kagame, were the most dramatic symbols to date of efforts to repair relations. Diplomatic ties were restored in November, three years after they were severed amid mutual recriminations and allegations.
In 2006, a French investigating judge issued international arrest warrants for eight Tutsi officials close to President Kagame, suggesting that they had deliberately provoked the genocide of their own people by assassinating a moderate Hutu president in May 1994. The accusations brought renewed allegations from Mr Kagame's Tutsi-dominated government that France had armed and trained Hutu militias and soldiers knowing that genocidal attacks were likely or possible.
In 1998, a French parliamentary investigation rejected these accusations but admitted that the late President François Mitterrand and the then centre-right government in France had been blinded by supposed French interests in the region into siding with radical, and eventually murderous, Hutu groups.
The eight arrest warrants against Kagame aides are still active but the Rwandan government now accepts that they were drawn up by an independent investigating magistrate and not the French government.
Before his press conference with President Kagame, Mr Sarkozy was taken on a tour of Kigali's genocide museum. On two occasions, the official guide made references to alleged French complicity in the massacres, including a photograph of a French military vehicle driving past armed Hutu civilians. President Sarkozy ignored the remarks.
He later placed a wreath on a memorial to the dead and said that "in the name of the people of France" he "bowed" to "victims of the genocide of the Tutsis". "Errors of appreciation, political errors, were committed here which had consequences which were absolutely tragic," Mr Sarkozy said. Although he spoke of the cumulative guilt of the international community, the implication was clear. France was – for the first time – admitting that its own actions had contributed to the calamity.
On his way to Rwanda, Mr Sarkozy visited Gabon and made an unscheduled stop in Mali to greet a French aid worker, Pierre Camatte, released this week after almost three months as the hostage of an extreme Islamist group.