Former Colonies Want France Out. This African Nation Says, Bienvenue!

After decades of wielding political, military and economic power across Africa, France is scaling back its presence on the continent as it faces significant resentment in many of its former colonies. Yet one nation has emerged as an exception: Rwanda.

As other African nations seek to reduce France’s influence, Rwanda is embracing it, celebrating French culture, language and food, despite decades of frosty relations with Paris over its role in the 1994 Rwanda genocide. In return, French companies are scaling up their investments in Rwanda.

The détente, which is being championed by Rwanda’s longtime leader, Paul Kagame, has garnered France a much-needed security partner in Africa and secured Rwanda millions of dollars in development and trade funds. The warming relations are also rare good news for the French president, Emmanuel Macron, who has faced a wave of indignation across Africa and was crushed by the far right in the European parliamentary elections this month.

“We have a partner in Kagame,” Hervé Berville, a French minister of state, said in an interview in the Rwandan capital, Kigali.

For decades, diplomatic rancor and hostility characterized relations between the two countries. Mr. Kagame accused France, and especially the government of François Mitterrand, then president, of enabling the Rwandan officials who oversaw the 1994 genocide, in which an estimated 800,000 people were slaughtered.

The relationship frayed so much in the early 2000s that Rwanda abandoned French for English in classrooms, expelled the French ambassador, shuttered the French international school and cultural center, and blocked the French state radio broadcaster.

But events began to shift when Mr. Macron came to power. In 2021, a report he commissioned concluded that, while France was not complicit in the genocide, it bore “serious and overwhelming” responsibility for it. Rwanda published its own report weeks later and accused Paris of providing “unwavering support” to the government that carried out the genocide in order to maintain its own influence.

Mr. Macron visited Rwanda soon after the reports were released, beginning a cascade of events that brought about the rapprochement between the countries.

By mid-2021, France had appointed a new ambassador to Rwanda. The French Development Agency inaugurated a new office in Kigali. France donated hundreds of thousands of doses of Covid vaccine during the pandemic.

French conglomerates poured in millions of dollars in investments in real estate, technology, entertainment and tourism. Last month leaders from more than 50 French companies attended the Africa CEO Forum in Kigali, French officials said. Some of them, including the head of TotalEnergies, personally met with Mr. Kagame.

In Rwanda, French has been reintroduced in schools. Mr. Macron opened a newly built French cultural center. Young Rwandans now dine in restaurants offering French cuisine. Rwandan artists and fashion designers perform and exhibit their works at major French cultural institutions.

“Everywhere you look, there’s French and France,” said Mashauri Muhindo Memcan, a teacher in Kigali. A few years ago, he was the only French-language instructor at his school, he said, but he now leads a growing department with six French-language teachers.

For France, the new engagement with Rwanda reflects Mr. Macron’s efforts to find allies and business partners on a continent where rival nations like China and Russia are vying for influence.

But it’s also aimed at engaging the younger generations in conversations about the past, so as to “avoid a repetition,” said Mr. Berville, the French minister. “We need to be vigilant,” he told a group of French and Rwandan students in Kigali on a recent afternoon, wearing a dark tie over a white shirt, à la Macron.

Despite the warming ties, the two countries still have disagreements.

France has accused Rwanda of supporting rebel fighters wreaking havoc in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, which Kigali has long denied.

Rwanda still takes umbrage at the fact that France has not claimed more responsibility for the genocide. Those tensions surfaced during the 30th anniversary of the genocide in April, when Mr. Macron backpedaled on acknowledging France’s failure to halt the genocide.

But Rwanda and France have solidified their defense cooperation, even as French troops have been expelled from several African countries, including Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.

Though small in size, Rwanda has used its military to leverage its influence internationally, particularly through peacekeeping missions. And France, wary of another military intervention, has looked to Rwanda as an alternative to deploying troops on African soil, said Federico Donelli, a professor of international relations at the University of Trieste, who has written extensively about Rwanda’s military.

This was the case in Mozambique, where France backed the deployment of Rwandan troops to fight an insurgency in Cabo Delgado Province. The region is home to a multibillion-dollar gas project owned by TotalEnergies of France.

France also promoted Rwanda’s involvement in Mozambique at the European Union, Mr. Donelli said. The bloc funded Rwanda’s mission to the tune of 20 million euros, or $21.4 million.

“France sees Rwanda as a perfect partner in its new African agenda,” Mr. Donelli added. “Paris’s political costs, both domestic and continental, are lower. And Kigali stands to gain both a good reputation and economic benefits.”

Beyond security, France has increased its development funding to the landlocked nation. The French development agency has spent half a billion euros creating jobs and renovating health facilities. In April, the two countries signed a development partnership valued at 400 million euros, or about $429 million.

France is also paying for vocational training for thousands of Rwandan college students in disciplines including mechatronics, a hybrid field that combines mechanics and electronics.

On a recent morning, several French officials toured a college that France funded and built in Tumba, a town about 20 miles northwest of Kigali. Students there huddled in classes and laboratories studying industrial automation and working up robotic systems.

“There’s a willingness in Rwanda to change, improve and even build systems that could benefit the wider Africa,” said Arthur Germond, the Rwanda country director for the French development agency, who led the tour. “We want to help that vision.”

For some Rwandans, the shifting relations augur new opportunities.

For years, Hervé Kimenyi, a comedian, refrained from performing in French as Rwanda pivoted away from the language and his audiences dwindled. But with relations improving, he is now setting up a comedy club that will feature standup, poetry and music exclusively in French.

By doing so, he said, he hopes to reach both older and younger Rwandans but also French-speaking students and professionals from elsewhere on the continent, mostly West Africa, who now call Rwanda home.

For Mr. Berville, the French minister, strengthening relations with Rwanda will entail working on challenges facing both nations, such as climate change. But it will also involve France’s taking active measures to reckon with the past, including trying genocide suspects still living in France.

That’s the only way to make improving relations “irreversible,” no matter who succeeds Mr. Macron in the next French election, Mr. Berville said. “Words are good,” he said, “but actions are better.”

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