September 25, 2004


Language clash opens old wounds: Rwanda’s new elite wants English to replace French as the official language as Paris is probed over its role in the genocide (Fred Bridgland, 9/26/04, Sunday Herald)

Most of the guerrillas had French names – such as Jean-Jacques and Christophe – but they had already lost many Gallic customs because of their long exile in Anglophile states. They didn’t sing French songs, and certainly not the Marseillaise, as they advanced past villages dotting Rwanda’s green hills where boys drove herds of long-horned cattle through tree-shaded valleys. Instead, Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ In The Wind was much favoured.

Not only had the imminent victors become Anglicised, but they loathed the French government, which had supported the Hutu regime of Juvenal Habyarimana, an ally of Paris and a great supporter of the French-speaking world.

When President Habyarimana was killed in a mystery plane crash in April 1994, Mille Collines, the French-language radio station, began inciting Hutus to “eliminate Tutsi cockroaches”. Announcers said: “The graves are half full. Who will fill them? In truth, all Tutsis will perish. They will vanish from this country.”

The Tutsi victory was a huge shock for Paris. The RPF accused French soldiers of training the Hutu genocide militias, known as the Interahamwe (“those who fight together”) and of protecting the militias when they retreated before advancing RPF troops.

Now President Kagame – infuriated with France and President Jacques Chirac – has signalled that Rwanda, whose strongest relations are with English-speaking countries, is poised to supplant French – the official language since independence was won in 1962 – with English, backed by Kinyarwanda.

English is growing in dominance despite only 3% of the population speaking the language fluently against the 8% who speak French. Already, the country’s three main newspapers are published in English and a decree has been issued that all laws be made in both French and English. Anyone applying to enter university must speak both , as classes are taught in the two tongues .

Kagame has ordered that all cabinet ministers and civil servants must speak English as well as French, a language he has not yet mastered.

This blow to French cultural pride comes as Kagame has ordered the formation of a commission to scrutinise France’s role in the genocide.

And there's no DeGaulle to cleanse the record this time.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 25, 2004 8:31 PM

I lie awake nights worrying about the Rwandans speaking French.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 25, 2004 9:59 PM

It's been a mystery why the French were so deeply involved in the genocide. What could have been their motive? Is it possible that it was promotion of the French language?

Posted by: pj at September 25, 2004 11:14 PM


I don't know about language, but definitely control and influence. The French attitude to the ex-colonials is still very proprietary.

Back in the 70's and 80's Canada set out to build up a foreign aid clientele in these countries as part of Trudeau's francophone push and also to stick it to France for deGaulle's interference up here. Listening to the stories of aid workers jousting with their French counterparts for influence and publicity you would have thought you were in a John LeCarre novel.

Posted by: Peter B at September 26, 2004 7:17 AM