October 12, 2018 / 3:13 PM / 9 months ago

In sign of better relations, Rwandan heads Francophonie body

YEREVAN (Reuters) - Rwanda’s foreign minister was named head of the International Organisation of La Francophonie (OIF) on Friday, a sign of slowly improving relations between Paris and Kigali a decade after the African nation turned its back on the French language.

Louise Mushikiwabo, Rwanda's foreign minister and newly appointed head of the International Organisation of La Francophonie (OIF), attends a news conference on the closing of the 17th OIF summit in Yerevan, Armenia October 12, 2018. REUTERS/Melik Baghdasayan/Photolure

French President Emmanuel Macron announced his support for Louise Mushikiwabo’s candidacy during a visit to Paris earlier this year by Rwandan leader Paul Kagame, who has long accused France of complicity in the 1994 genocide.

“As secretary-general, I intend to give importance to French in an increasingly multilingual world because I am convinced that French has its place among other languages and for the good of the world,” Mushikiwabo told an OIF summit in Armenia.

The OIF represents 84 countries where French is spoken or where there is an affinity towards French culture, including many former French colonies.

For decades France claimed Rwanda, a former Belgian colony where French was an official language alongside Kinyarwanda, as part of the Francophone fold.

But embittered by the legacy of France’s role in the genocide, Kagame, whose Tutsi rebels ended the massacre, ditched French in favour of English in Rwanda’s schools in 2010.

Kagame, an English speaker who spent his formative years in exile in neighbouring Uganda, led Rwanda in 2009 to join the Commonwealth of mainly former British colonies.

Asked if Macron’s backing of Mushikiwabo pointed to improved ties between the two countries, a French presidency official said: “His support deepens the dialogue between the two presidents but it will not be the act that leads to a normalisation of relations.”

The official said neither Kagame, who made a speech in French at the OIF summit, nor France at this point wanted a resumption of full diplomatic relations.

Kagame has been lauded by some Western powers for masterminding the economic transformation a country deeply scarred by the genocide — during which Hutu extremists killed some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus over the course of 100 days. However he is also accused by rights groups of trampling on the opposition and muzzling dissent, accusations his government rejects.

Mushikiwabo is a member of Kagame’s inner circle and one his most trusted ministers, holding the foreign ministry portfolio since 2009.

Macron said in March he wanted French to be more widespread.

He also wants to reshape France’s relationship with the African continent, seeking to shake off the tag of former colonial power motivated by commercial gain and shift the focus to education and investing in youth.

“It is the first important signal that both Rwanda and France are willing to engage in friendly gestures,” said Rwandan political analyst Christopher Kayumba, adding some government officials had begun tweeting in French in recent days.

Additional reporting by Richard Lough and Michel Rose in Paris and Clement Uwiringiyimana in Kigali; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Peter Graff

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