Leading Article: A rash French venture in Rwanda

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The Independent Online
THE FRENCH should think hard before sending troops to Rwanda, even on what is intended as a purely humanitarian mission, and even with UN blessing. President Mitterrand's willingness to risk action to reduce the slaughter, even at this late stage, does him some credit, though his motives seem to be mixed. But a French military intervention is likely to do more harm than good - especially to the soldiers involved.

No country is less well-placed for such a mission. The French government has helped to provide weapons and training to the Rwandan army. That army in turn trained and armed the militias that carried out most of the killings of the minority Tutsis and opposition Hutus.

The rebel, Tutsi-dominated Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), which now controls around three- quarters of the country, sees the French as unequivocally pro-Hutu - not least because the French intervened twice previously to keep the RPF from taking Kigali, in 1990 and 1993. This hostility would be strengthened if, as seems inevitable, French troops were to enter Rwanda via Zaire and a Hutu-held area, where they would be warmly welcomed. No doubt such a French force could save some lives by protecting those held in refugee camps. But it would eventually have to contend with a hostile RPF. In hilly, unfamiliar terrain, its troops would be very vulnerable.

France has a long post-colonial history of military intervention on behalf of deeply unpopular and discredited African leaders in Francophone Africa. This has been a source of shame to many in France. Although ostensibly non-partisan, an intervention in Rwanda would be seen as part of that essentially anti-democratic tradition.

In this instance, the distinguished occupant of the Elysee is believed to fear a linguistic as well as a diplomatic setback. The RPF leadership, being the sons of Tutsis exiled since 1960 in Uganda, speaks English rather than the French bequeathed by Belgium's colonial regime. But however strong France's fears may be of the onward march of the English language, preserving the boundaries of Francophonia is no ground for military action.

The Americans have erred in the other direction: traumatised by their experiences in Somalia, they have inexcusably held up large-scale UN intervention in Rwanda. In particular, they are being slow to provide 50 armoured personnel carriers promised to the proposed 5,500 UN- backed African peace-keeping troops. But that does not justify an ill-considered move by France - even one with UN support.