PARIS — France's gamble that it could intervene usefully in Rwanda without provoking the bloody fiasco that overtook the U.N. and American interventions in Somalia has succeeded. The allied and African governments that opposed or denigrated the French undertaking owe Paris an apology. They also owe those helped by France a new effort, right now, to see that a sequel to the Rwandan tragedy does not follow in neighboring Burundi.
Despite the professionalism and knowledge of the terrain the French have displayed, they began with a serious misapprehension that had to be corrected after forces already were committed. They believed the murders -- the International Red Cross says more than a million of them -- were a reciprocal affair between majority Hutus (85 percent of the population) and minority Tutsi.
They found when they arrived that the murderers were virtually all Hutu and the victims Tutsi, together with some moderate Hutu. Moreover, they found that this genocide had deliberately been instigated by the Hutu-dominated government and semi-official groups, carried out not only by the local militia chiefs but by mayors and regional prefects and even by teachers. Hence the French effort had to be turned into a rescue operation for Tutsis fleeing Hutus, while the Hutu population itself was in flight from the advance of the Uganda-based Tutsi rebel force, the Rwandan Patriotic Front.
The Front's army, in the regions it has conquered, reportedly has conducted itself with discipline and a willingness to deal with moderate Hutus, naming a Hutu to be prime minister in the government the Front intends to set up.
However, legitimately or otherwise, some question the true character of the Front, largely comprised of descendants of Tutsi refugees driven into exile in Uganda in the 1960s and 1970s. Its rigid discipline and somewhat mysterious leadership have evoked memories of the Khmer Rouge. Nothing that it has done since invading Rwanda has justified those fears. Quite the contrary. But the fears influenced French policy.
Many of those implicated in the Hutu-instigated massacres have taken refuge in the French-controlled zone, requiring another field decision by the French. They now disarm militias and civilians and are keeping the Hutu military refugees under surveillance. They are also collecting evidence on the atrocities, as Prime Minister Edouard Balladur told the U.N. Security Council on Monday, to be turned over to a U.N. human-rights inquiry.
Mr. Balladur also urged that U.N. forces rapidly take over, and appealed to international aid agencies to help the French army ++ deal with refugees and the wounded in the zone now under its control. These have held back because they saw the intervention as politically tainted.
The reason for that is the following: France has found itself, for better or for worse, the post-colonial power in French-speaking Rwanda and Burundi, both originally German colonies, awarded to Belgium after the first world war. In recent years Paris supported the dominantly Hutu government in Rwanda, intervening militarily in 1990 against the Patriotic Front's first invasion from Uganda.
Why? There is a fundamental problem here that the events of recent weeks have worsened, and which risks producing a new explosion of violence in Burundi. The struggle between Hutu and Tutsi is not simply an ethnic rivalry. The spectacularly tall, cattle-raising Tutsi historically were the rulers of both countries. They are a Caucasoid people who arrived in the region four centuries ago, probably from Ethiopia, to subjugate the peasant Hutus.
Germany kept this Tutsi-dominated feudal structure in place when it occupied the country in 1890. Belgium had second thoughts only shortly before Rwanda and Burundi gained independence, under U.N. pressure, in 1962. There was a Hutu uprising in Rwanda in 1959-1960, bringing them to power, while in Burundi, thanks to Tutsi domination of the military, the Tutsi continued to rule, even after independence.
The present fighting therefore must be seen as a class struggle as well as an ethnic war. And the question that must be asked is whether the Rwandan Patriotic Front, representing 14 percent of a bitterly divided and mutually murderous population, can lastingly reimpose its rule over the rest. Restoration of democracy would simply put it back out of power. This consideration partially explains France's past support for the Hutu government.
Today the provisional president of Burundi is Hutu while the army is Tutsi. Since the assassination of the presidents of both countries April 6 -- which launched the massacres in Rwanda -- Burundi has undergone a desperately tense but, thus far, peaceful succession struggle between extremists in both ethnic camps. The obvious fear today is that the rivalry will not stay peaceful, but will end in massacres like those in Rwanda.
In principle, what is necessary now is redeployed humanitarian help for the refugees, wherever they are. Next is a U.N. force to take over from the French, to make plain the disinterested nature of the international effort. Third is prosecution of those who instigated and committed genocide. Fourth is diplomatic action and, if possible, an international presence in Burundi, to deter a genocidal explosion there. Of these four desiderata, only the first and -- with delays and without grace -- the second are likely to be supplied by the international community.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.