France bears a “terrible responsibility” for the deaths of hundreds of thousands in the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, President Emmanuel Macron has said, in a long-anticipated speech in Kigali, the capital of the east African country.

Speaking at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, where 250,000 victims of the massacres are buried, Macron said that France had not been complicit in the tragedy but had made errors of judgment that had appalling consequences.

“By engaging … in a conflict in which it had no prior experience, France failed to heed the warnings and and overestimated its ability to stop something that was already underway,” Macron said.

“France did not understand that, in its efforts to prevent a regional conflict or a civil war, it was in fact standing by a genocidal regime. By ignoring the warnings of the most lucid observers, France assumed a terrible responsibility in a chain of events that resulted in the worst possible outcome, even though that was exactly what [France] hoped to avoid.”

Macron’s visit is the first by a French leader since 2010 to Kigali, which has long accused France of complicity in the killing of about 800,000 mostly Tutsi Rwandans.

French troops led a military-humanitarian intervention called Operation Turquoise launched by Paris under a UN mandate between June and August 1994, but critics have long said it was intended to support the Hutu government responsible for the genocide, a claim a recent official French report by a team of historians and archivists confirms.

The visit is highly symbolic and aims at moving on from three decades of diplomatic tensions over France’s role in the genocide.

Officials at the Élysée Palace said the visit was anticipated to mark “the final stage in the normalisation of relations between France and Rwanda”.

Macron landed in Kigali shortly after 7am local time, for a busy one-day visit before he heads to South Africa on Friday, according to the French presidency.

The Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, who has repeatedly accused France of aiding the genocide, indicated earlier this year that relations between Paris and Kigali were improving.

Kagame has been in power since the age of 36, when his Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebel army routed the genocidal regime and seized Kigali.

Emmanuel Macron (left) and Paul Kagame pose for the photographers at the presidential palace prior to their talks in Kigali.
Emmanuel Macron (left) and Paul Kagame pose for the photographers at the presidential palace prior to their talks in Kigali. Photograph: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

The 63-year-old has won international praise for the stability and economic development he has brought Rwanda, but has also been accused of running an authoritarian, one-party state.

Earlier this week, two of Rwanda’s highest-profile opposition leaders accused Macron of ignoring political repression and rights abuses in their country.

“President Emmanuel Macron does not hesitate publicly to bluntly castigate dictatorial regimes, but keeps silent with regard to the authoritarian rule and human rights abuses by the Rwandan regime,” critics Victoire Ingabire and Bernard Ntaganda said in a statement.

Rwanda severed diplomatic ties with France in 2006 after a French judge ordered arrest warrants against nine Kagame aides accused of links to the shooting down of the Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane on 6 April 1994. The killings began the day after Habyarimana was shot down, and continued until 15 July. Over 100 days, armed militias slaughtered members of the Tutsi ethnic group and some moderate Hutus with a brutality that shocked the international community, although no outside the country intervened to stop the killings.

Nicolas Sarkozy, then president of France, travelled to Kigali in 2010. Sarkozy admitted France had committed an “error of judgment” and “serious mistakes” at the time of the genocide but stopped short of an apology. His remarks fell short of expectations in Rwanda, and bilateral relations did not improve.

Macron’s comments also stopped short of a full apology, though he did go further than his predecessors by saying that only those who had survived the horrors “can maybe forgive, give us the gift of forgiveness”.

Analysts described Macron’s visit as a major diplomatic achievement for Kagame. “It’s an absolute victory for Kagame on so many levels and, even though this is about the role that France played in 1994, it also in many ways absolutely legitimises his government today, and I think that’s where the problem is,” said Stephanie Wolters, an expert at the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg. “We have accumulated knowledge over the last few years … that shows very clearly that this is not a regime that you want to be praising.”