Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, has admitted French responsibility in the 1994 Rwanda genocide in a speech at the Kigali Genocide Memorial intended to draw a line under over two decades of diplomatic rancour.

Macron said that France, under the then presidency of François Mitterrand, had stood “alongside a genocidal regime” and had done too little to prevent the killing of some 800,000 Tutsis and their Hutu sympathisers.

A report by a French panel released in March concluded that “France bore heavy and damning responsibilities” for the genocide, but absolved it of complicity.

In Kigali on Thursday, standing in front of a memorial where 250,000 mainly Tutsi victims of the genocide are buried, Macron said that France had “a duty to look history in the face and recognise the part of suffering it inflicted on the Rwandan people by keeping silent for too long”.

Macron stopped short of a formal apology, stressing France was “not an accomplice”. But he did say that France had ignored the voices of those who warned of impending genocide. “France became overwhelmingly responsible for a descent into the worst outcome, even as it sought precisely to avoid it,” he said.

A report commissioned by Rwanda said that “French officials armed, advised, trained, equipped, and protected the Rwandan government” and Rwanda had accused Paris of being a “collaborator” with the extremist Hutu government of the time.

Paul Kagame, whose then rebel troops helped end the genocide and is now president, welcomed Macron’s speech. “Politically, and morally, this was an act of tremendous courage. These risks paid off, because there was good faith on both sides. It was important not to rush the process. The facts had to be properly established,” Kagame said on Thursday. “The truth heals.”

Under Macron, France has sought to reset relations with Africa as a whole, recalibrating a relationship previously dominated by colonial history and the perception among some Africans that Paris continues to pursue neocolonialist policies. Although French troops remain bogged down in a fight against militant jihadis in the Sahel, Macron has tried to put the relationship more on a business footing and has expanded Paris’s focus beyond francophone Africa.

Although Rwanda was not a French colony, rapprochement has been considered vital, partly because Kagame, who has run the country of 13m people since 1994, is considered one of the most influential leaders in the continent.

In 2006, Kagame expelled the French ambassador and in 2008, he switched the national curriculum from French to English. Rwanda joined the British Commonwealth in the following year.

Macron has worked hard to improve relations. In 2019, his government supported the appointment of Louise Mushikiwabo, a former Rwandan foreign minister who had accused French officials of getting “away with murder, literally”, as head of a Francophonie organisation.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Mushikiwabo said of Macron: “He is genuinely interested in turning the page on the kind of relationship France has had with Africa.” Macron had what she called the “political courage to confront some of the ghosts of the past”.

Freddy Mutanguha, vice-president of Ibuka, an umbrella group for genocide survivor organisations, and a survivor himself, said he appreciated Macron’s initiative. “What we realised in the speech he made, you can feel compassion, and you can feel the willingness to actually correct the errors of the past,” he said.

Additional reporting by Leila Abboud in Paris