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Butchering the language in Rwanda.


DO NOT MESS with the French language. At the quai d’Orsay, diplomats consider the zealous defense of their tongue a cornerstone of their mission. Among all the markers of culture and nationhood — food, music, religion, literature, even forms of government — the people of France hold up their particular dialect of Latin as the supreme valuation of what it means to be French, especially outside the hexagon of the home country.

This was the first nation in the world, after all, to create an institute to defend its language and preserve it in its historic form. The mission statement of the Académie Française, established in 1635, charges it to “carefully and diligently work towards applying certain rules to our language and to make it pure, eloquent and able to be used in the arts and sciences.”

The French language is historically — and currently — a primary vehicle of French foreign policy, a “soft power” that expanded the French sphere of influence…

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More than a courtly affection or a pleasing set of mellifluous words to impress a potential lover, the French language is historically – and currently – a primary vehicle of French foreign policy, a “soft power” that expanded the French sphere of influence eastward in Europe. The scholar Louis de Jaucort pointed out in 1765 that the works of popular philosophical authors like Corneille, Descartes, Pascal, Racine and Despréaux had to be read in their original language, thus necessitating the spread of the language through the royal courts and educated classes of many nations.

“Clarity, order, accuracy, purity of terms, all distinguish French from other languages, and from there propagate an approval that pleases all peoples,” Jaucort wrote, to the irritation of some. Leo Tolstoy considered the spread of French into his native Russia as a travesty – a crowbar that pried the aristocrats away from the peasants.

Even greater than this lingual European invasion was the march of the French language southwest toward the Caribbean and south toward Africa, where schooling in the mother tongue was a primary goal of conquest, second only to economic plunder. While the British did a haphazard job of instructing their subjects in reading and writing English, the French — beginning in the 1880s — took it as their charge to turn their protectorate citizens into Frenchmen through careful instruction. And that meant making them speak French according to the standards of the Académie Française.

LIKE ANY ZEALOUS BELIEF, this one had its dark side. After the independence movements of the 1950s, Francophone Africa lay spread in a wide belt across the center of the continent, split into autonomous nations and competing interests. Paris continued to wield outsized monetary and military influence in its former colonies and among its neighbors, and, in times of dispute, tended to see those who spoke French as “the good guys” and all the rest as the enemies.

Such was the simplistic lens through which the French viewed the Rwandan civil war of 1990-1994, in which the Francophone government composed mainly of those of the Hutu ethnic group fought off an assault by the rebels of the Revolutionary Patriotic Front, who were mainly of the Tutsi ethnic group and had spent enough time in exile in neighboring Uganda that their language of choice was English. Everyone spoke the indigenous language of Kinyarwanda, but a person’s use of a second colonial tongue turned into an important political statement.

Even though Rwanda had been a colony of Belgium up until its independence in 1962, the French government were steadfast friends of the Rwandan leadership, providing military assistance and abundant flattery of the president, Juvenal Habyarimana, even gifting him with a personal jet: a Dassault Falcon 50.

As Habyarimana was on board this plane returning from signing a peace accord with the rebels on the night of April 7, 1994, it was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade fired by a commando team hiding near the Kigali International Airport, killing all aboard. Who assassinated the president is still a mystery; the most popular theory puts the guilt on members of the president’s own inner circle who were eager to see the war continue.

What followed that initial act of violence — for the next 100 days — was the infamous Rwandan genocide, in which up to 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu were hacked, shot and burned to death across the country, their assailants egged on by radio broadcasts and peer pressure. Anyone not perceived to be in fervent support of the French-speaking Rwandan government, in fact, was considered an enemy that should be targeted for elimination.

Historical arguments about the Rwandan genocide will likely never end, and one source of continuing disagreement is the degree to which the French foreign ministry and and military were complicit in the slaughter in the name of propping up the shaky government. While it is beyond question that French military advisors helped the Rwandan army fight off attacks from the RPF before the genocide, their conduct after the assassination — and during the massacre of civilians — remains hotly disputed. “To say that the French army took part in genocide is a despicable lie that I will not tolerate,” the former Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has said.

The Muse Report revealed ‘ cables and witness statements showing French transfers of arms to bands of killers during the genocide, even as the facts were becoming plain. ’

He now has even more to be defensive about. The law firm of Cunningham Levy Muse released a report in December 2017 revealing cables and witness statements showing French transfers of arms to bands of killers during the genocide, even as the facts were becoming plain. The French relief effort for Hutu refugees called “Operation Turquoise” — a safe zone in the southwest part of the country during the violence — was also described as an attempt to shield genocide planners from justice and to give a last-ditch effort to save the remains of Habyarimana’s government.

The post-1994 Rwandan government is still in the hands of the RPF military leader Paul Kagame, who has created an orderly and relatively prosperous society under a repressive state in which dissent is not tolerated. True to the fears of Paris’ diplomats, he has forged close ties with Britain and the U.S. – including their corporations and donors – and shunned the French. The two nations do not have mutual ambassadors, and relations are still in a deep freeze. The report from American lawyers has not helped. “The Muse Report exposes a damning summary of conduct by French officials in Rwanda during the 1990s and thereafter, and we agree with the report recommendation that a full investigation into the role of French officials in the genocide is warranted,” Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo told CNN.

That isn’t likely to happen. But neither is the return of Rwanda into the broader community of the French language. In the autumn of 2008, the Kagame government ordered teachers to adopt English as the official international language of the classroom. The transition has been spotty, but soon it will be a decade since the average schoolchild was routinely taught the language of Descartes, Voltaire and Napoleon. If the snubbing of French grammar continues in Rwanda, this would eventually make it a language of the elderly, the stray romantic, the scholar, the accused, and — for many — of bad memories.

Tom Zoellner is an Associate Professor of English at Chapman University in California. He is the author of The Heartless Stone: A Journey Through the World of Diamonds, Deceit, and Desireco-author, with Paul Rusesabagina, of An Ordinary Man: An Autobiography. His most recent work is Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World–from the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief.

Also in The Fortnightly:Bigotry from Birth‘ by Tom Zoellner.

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