Many African nations want France to withdraw. This country wants it.

After decades of exercising political, military and economic power across Africa, France is reducing its presence on the continent as it faces significant resentment in many African countries. However, one country is an exception: Rwanda.

As other African countries seek to reduce French influence, Rwanda is embracing it, celebrating French culture, language and cuisine, despite decades of frosty relations with Paris over its role in the genocide Rwanda in 1994. In exchange, French companies are intensifying their investments in Rwanda.

Detente, championed by Rwanda’s longtime leader Paul Kagame, made France an indispensable security partner in Africa and secured millions of dollars in development and trade funds for Rwanda. The warming of relations is also rare good news for French President Emmanuel Macron, who faced a wave of outrage across Africa and was crushed by the far right in this month’s European parliamentary elections. this.

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

For decades, diplomatic rancor and hostility have characterized relations between the two countries. Mr. Kagame accused France, and particularly the government of then-President François Mitterrand, of enabling Rwandan officials who oversaw the 1994 genocide, in which about 800,000 people were massacred.

Relations deteriorated so much in the early 2000s that Rwanda abandoned French in favor of English in classrooms, expelled the French ambassador, closed the French international school and cultural center and blocked French state radio.

But events began to change 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 released 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 shortly after the reports were published, setting off a cascade of events that brought the countries closer together.

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

French conglomerates have invested millions of dollars in real estate, technology, entertainment and tourism. Last month, executives from more than 50 French companies attended the Africa CEO Forum in Kigali, French officials said. Some of them, including the boss of TotalEnergies, personally met 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 in major French cultural institutions.

“Everywhere you look there is French and France,” said Mashauri Muhindo Memcan, a teacher in Kigali. A few years ago, he was the only French teacher at his school, he says, but today he heads a growing department that has six French teachers.

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

But it also aims to engage younger generations in conversations about the past, in order to “avoid a repeat,” said Mr. Berville, the French minister. “We must be vigilant,” he told a group of French and Rwandan students in Kigali recently, wearing a dark tie over a white shirt, à la Macron.

Despite warming ties, the two countries still have disagreements.

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

Rwanda is still offended by the fact that France has not claimed more responsibility for the genocide. These tensions came to the fore on the 30th anniversary of the genocide in April, when Mr. Macron reversed course by acknowledging France’s failure to end 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.

Although small, Rwanda has used its army to increase its influence on the international stage, notably through peacekeeping missions. And France, wary of further military intervention, views Rwanda as an alternative to deploying troops on African soil, said Federico Donelli, professor of international relations at the University of Trieste, who has written extensively on the Rwandan army.

This was the case in Mozambique, where France supported 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 French group TotalEnergies.

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

“France considers Rwanda as an ideal partner in its new African agenda,” added Mr. Donelli. “The political costs of Paris, both national and continental, are lower. And Kigali has every chance of gaining both a good reputation and economic benefits. »

Beyond security, France has increased its development funding for this landlocked country. The French development agency spent half a billion euros to create jobs and renovate health facilities. In April, the two countries signed a development partnership valued at 400 million euros, or approximately $429 million.

France also funds the professional training of thousands of Rwandan students in disciplines such as mechatronics, a hybrid field that combines mechanics and electronics.

Recently, several French officials visited a French-funded and built college in Tumba, a town about 32 km northwest of Kigali. Students gathered in classes and laboratories to study industrial automation and develop robotic systems.

“There is a desire in Rwanda to change, improve and even build systems that could benefit the whole of Africa,” said Arthur Germond, Rwanda country director for the French development agency, which led the tour. “We want to contribute to this vision.”

For some Rwandans, the evolving relationship bodes new opportunities.

For years, Hervé Kimenyi, a comedian, refrained from performing in French as Rwanda moved away from the language and its audience dwindled. But as relations improve, he is creating a comedy club that will offer stand-up, poetry and music exclusively in French.

In 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, mainly from West Africa, who have now takes up residence in Rwanda.

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

This is the only way to make improving relations “irreversible”, whoever Mr Macron succeeds in the next French election, Mr Berville said. “Words are good,” he said, “but actions are better. »

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