French President Nicolas Sarkozy has, in the past, shown little interest in discussing the darker periods of French history. His summed up his attitude while visiting former colony Algeria two years ago, saying:
"Young people on either side of the Mediterranean are looking to the future more than the past and what they want are concrete things. They're not waiting for their leaders to simply drop everything and start mortifying themselves, or to beat their breasts, over the mistakes of the past because, in that case, there'd be lots to do on both sides."
But in the last two weeks there have been some signs that Sarkozy may be tentatively softening his relentlessly forward-facing outlook. Visiting Haiti last week to announce a debt cancellation package, Sarkozy had this to say about France's legacy of slavery, colonialism, and economic dominance over the country:
"Our presence did not leave good memories,'' Sarkozy conceded outside the still-standing French Embassy in downtown Port-au-Prince.
"The wounds of colonization, maybe the worst, [and] the conditions of our separation have some traces that are still alive in Haitian memories.''
Visiting Rwanda today, Sarkozy didn't exactly apologize for France's conduct during the 1994 genocide, but at least took note of his country's faults:
"What happened here is unacceptable and what happened here forces the international community, including France, to reflect on the mistakes that prevented it from anticipating and stopping this terrible crime."
Asked what he felt those mistakes had been, the president cited a seriously flawed assessment of the situation in Rwanda as the genocide unfolded and a UN-mandated French military intervention that was "too late and undoubtedly too little".
But reflecting a thaw in relations, Sarkozy said he hoped the future would enable the two countries to "turn an extremely painful page" on a past fraught with mutual distrust. "Off the back of all these mistakes … we are going to try to build a bilateral relationship," he said.
Granted, this isn't much -- certainly less than the Rwandans were expecting and much weaker than the apologies Bill Clinton and Kofi Annan have made -- but it's a new style from Sarkozy, whose rhetoric has never exactly been known for its sensitivity.
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