By Sofia Bouderbala (AFP) – Sep 11, 2011
PARIS — President Paul Kagame of Rwanda began his first visit to France since the 1994 genocide on Sunday, looking to repair ties despite controversy over Paris' role in his country's troubled past.
Kagame's visit is set to include meetings with Rwandan expats, French academics and businessmen as well as President Nicolas Sarkozy, who visited Rwanda in 2009 to kickstart a delicate reconciliation process.
Many French generals and statesmen are still smarting after being accused by Kagame and his allies of collaborating with Rwanda's previous genocidal regime in its massacre of around 800,000 mainly ethnic Tutsis.
After arriving he attended a gathering of Rwandan expats in Paris and expressed his pleasure at visiting France.
"We are working together to see how we can leave history behind, to move ahead," Kagame said told the gathering.
The Rwandan leader said "there are people who are against this evolution" in French-Rwandan relations.
"We have gone beyond this type of politics (of hostility), which is contemptible," he said.
"The people who adhere to it are contemptible. And what is contemptible is a waste of time for us," he said.
Meanwhile, opposition and human rights groups accuse Kagame -- whose Tutsi rebel army overthrew the murderous Hutu government and brought the killing to an end -- of himself becoming more authoritarian in his 17 years of rule.
"We are well aware that this visit won't please some people, but the president has decided to turn the page on France's painful relations with Rwanda," a senior official in Sarkozy's office told AFP.
One sign of the tension is the absence of French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, who was accused of complicity in the genocide by a Rwandan inquiry and has departed on a tour of the Pacific rim.
French generals have called Kagame's visit an insult to the honour of the French armed forces, and demanded that he withdraw the inquiry report, which they brand a lie, and which implicates several senior officers.
Rwanda is a former Belgian colony and its formerly French-speaking regime once had close ties with Paris. Kagame speaks English, and his Tutsi-led FPR government has closer ties to London and Washington.
These connections have suffered in recent years, however, amid criticism of his treatment of opposition dissent and allegations of rights abuses.
"This visit comes at a time when both sides are in a position of weakness," said Rwanda expert Andre Guichaoua, noting that Paris has seen its influence in the Great Lakes region collapse, and Rwanda is more and more isolated.
When Rwanda is in difficulty, and its powerful friends (in London and Washington) distance themselves, he rediscovers France," said Guichaoua.
Kagame's first engagement on Sunday was with the Rwandan diaspora in Europe, with busloads of supporters being brought down from Belgium, Britain and Scandinavia for the meeting in the suburbs of Paris.
"We must devote our time to activities to rebuild Rwanda, to fight poverty, to send our children to school," he told the 2,500 strong crowd.
Kagame is also expected to face protests during the trip from Rwandan opponents in exile, notably on Monday and Tuesday in Paris during his working meetings.
On Monday, he is to lunch with Sarkozy in the Elysee Palace, to "develop a partnership between our two countries and deepen our cooperation" in the words of Sarkozy's adviser.
Unlike Belgium, France has never apologised for failing to halt the killings, but Sarkozy came close during his visit to Kigali in 2009, admitting Paris had a "kind of blindness" to the genocidal streak in the former regime.
The controversial Mucyo inquiry report, firmly and furiously denied by Paris, alleges that French complicity went further than this, with French forces training and arming Hutu militia and taking part in murder and rape.
Several senior French officials from former governments of both right and left have never forgiven what they see as a slur, but since coming to power in 2007 Sarkozy has tried to turn the page and rebuild normal relations.
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