The French presidential office, the Elysée Palace, caused a degree of surprise on April 7th, which marked the 21st anniversary of the start of the Rwanda genocide, with a somewhat terse announcement of “the declassification of Elysée documents concerning Rwanda between 1990 and 1995”.
For while the decision to do so was originally taken last year by President François Hollande, there was no official statement issued on Tuesday by the Elysée, but instead press agencies were given the news via what they quoted as “the president’s entourage”.
“Declassification” appeared to imply that the French presidency wished to shine every light on the events between 1990 and 1994, when France was one of the strongest supporters of the Hutu regime of then Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana, in the civil war with the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front. Habyarimana died when his plane was shot down near Kigali airport on April 6th 1994, setting-off the state-sponsored genocide of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in which between 800,000 and 1,000,000 people were massacred over the space of three months.
France’s role during those three months, and not only the 1990-1994 civil war, is the subject of deep controversy, amid suspicions it delivered arms to the Hutu regime that led the massacres and that, during its June 1994 UN-mandated military intervention, codenamed Operation Turquoise, France protected soldiers who took part in the atrocities.
It will indeed prove to be a major development if the archives to be declassified by the Elysée help clarify these and other questions that remain more than two decades after the events.
But in all probability that will not be the case. The archives in question are among the documents recorded during president François Mitterrand’s two terms of office, between 1981 and 1995. These were handed over to the French National Archives centre and, like all documents pertaining to the French presidency, they can by law be kept secret for a period of 60 years.
For anyone hoping to consult them, a request must be submitted for approval by the late Mitterrand’s legal representative in the matter, Dominique Bertinotti, a historian and former junior minister in Hollande’s first two socialist governments. The “declassification” of the Rwanda-related documents announced by the Elysée changes nothing in this.
Importantly, Bertinotti is a member of the board of the François Mitterrand Institute, whose president, Hubert Vedrine, was Mitterrand’s presidential chief-of-staff in 1994, and who as such held a key political role regarding the events in Rwanda.
“The François Mitterrand Institute essentially stands around Vedrine, the guardian of orthodox Mitterrandism, including for the media,” said François Graner, a physics researcher and member of Survie, an association which has played an active role in pressing for the truth about France’s role in the Rwanda genocide, and who last year published a book on the subject entitled Le Sabre et la machette (‘The sabre and the machete’).
But if access to the archives continues to be regulated by Mitterrand’s loyal guard, what is new in Tuesday’s announcement is that those documents previously protected by France’s ‘military defence’ secrecy laws - the sacrosanct classification Secret défense – are no longer so. That move was formally approved, as required by law, by the General Secretariat of Defence and National Security, the SGDSN, following Bertinotti’s agreement. “There remain no documents hidden in the Elysée archives,” said a spokeswoman for the SGDSN, who told Mediapart that the François Mitterrand Institute had been “favourable in principle for everything to be declassified”. She said 80 documents in all had been officially declassified by the SGDSN. “It’s not much, because the most important archives concerning Rwanda are with the ministries of defence and foreign affairs,” the spokeswoman added.
Which is where the problem lies, for a significant part of the archives from Mitterrand’s presidency regarding Rwanda have lready been leaked over the past ten years, and were the basis of a book co-authored by three French journalists and published in 2004, entitled Rwanda, les archives secrètes de Mitterrand (‘Rwanda, Mitterrand’s secret archives’).
Rafaëlle Maison, a professor of international law at Paris University XI, studied examples of the leaked documents and presented an analysis of them in the French monthly review revue Esprit in 2010. “If they are the same sources that we already had they have no great interest,” she said of the newly-declassified documents, “except for historians who until now had scruples about using documents that were not official.”
François Graner also advised caution. “We’ll judge on merit, and above all see if this is followed by the declassification of truly confidential items,” he said. “The priority is that the judges [Editor’s note: the French magistrates in charge of investigations] at the genocide [investigations] branch and the anti-terrorist branch can gain access to what they request, and also to the investigations of the army, notably about the April 6th 1994 attack [on president Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane] and the suspicions of rape.”
François Crétollier, a fellow member of Survie, and who has spent years lobbying for access to France’s official and protected documents relating to the Rwanda crisis, warned that key papers may have been previously removed from the declassified archives. “The move of openness by the Elysée is a good thing but it is possible that, over 20 years, documents have been sanitized or never included in the archives,” Crétollier said. “And if, in the end, we find what we already had, it serves no purpose but is discrediting for the government.”
Unless significant and never-before seen documents appear in the archives – an event that few historians appear to believe probable – the key information about France and the Rwandan Genocide remains lying in the locked coffers of the ministries of defence and foreign affairs, as indicated by the SGDSN, and the offices of French military intelligence (the DRM) and security services (DGSE). “As long as those archives will not be made accessible there will remain a multitude of grey areas,” said French journalist David Servenay, who is the author of two detailed books on French involvement in the genocide, Au nom de la France (‘In the name of France') published last year and Une guerre noire, enquête sur les origines du génocide rwandais (‘A black war, investigation into the origins of the Rwandan Genocide’) published in 2007. “The archives of the parliamentary [fact-finding]commission on Rwanda must also be declassified, notably certain hearings like that of the current head of the special forces, Grégoire de Saint-Quentin, who was present in Rwanda in 1994,” added Servenay.
Only the defence and foreign ministers themselves can ask for the declassification of their ministries’ archives, and notably those concerning Rwanda. According to a report by French news magazine L’Obs, published on Wednesday, a French presidential office source has indicated that both ministries and the French parliament would release their archives on Rwanda, but “at their rhythm”.
Contacted by Mediapart about its intentions to declassify its archives on Rwanda, the French defence ministry press office replied: “The Quai d’Orsay [French foreign ministry] and the defence [ministry] are charged with putting into practice, in their respective fields, this decision by the French president. We are therefore concerned by this move.” Also contacted by Mediapart, the French foreign affairs ministry press office offered a statement that was even vaguer about intentions to declassify its Rwanda files: “Work is continuing, in liaison with the authorities and administrations concerned.”
While the two ministries have offered neither a deadline nor any clear terms for rendering their archives public, the SGDSN said it had not received any request from the defence and foreign ministers - respectively Jean-Yves Le Drian and Laurent Fabius - concerning a declassification procedure. If they had made such a move, it would have signified the very first stage in the openness promised by the French presidency. For the time being, it would appear that the government and parliament are still opposed to adopting a position of true transparency about France’s role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
- The French version of this article can be found here.
English version by Graham Tearse