The arrival of French peacekeeping troops in Rwanda was rather like arsonists returning as the fire brigade. If there is an outsider most responsible for the horrible slaughter in Rwanda, it is France. The last time it sent troops to the country, in 1990, it was to prop up the Hutu-dominated regime of President Juvenal Habyarimana, supplying weapons and building up the army, which was fighting the mainly Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (R.P.F.). This past April, when the President was killed in a mysterious plane crash; this same Hutu-dominated regime embarked upon a massacre not only of Tutsis but of all “moderates”–that is, people opposed to ethnic strife.

France’s guilt by association may explain why the R.P.F., now master of more than half the country, was hostile to this intervention, why the U.N..Security Council was reluctant to approve the French move, why France’s European partners contributed no more than lip service and why a small Senegalese contingent is, so far, the only African reinforcement. Still, with the blessing of the U.N., the French proceeded to move their troops to Rwanda from a provisional base in Zaire (brushing up the image of the notorious President Mobutu in the process).

Operation Turquoise, as it is called, throws some light on the vexed problem of the right or duty of intervention. France may not be the best candidate for knight in shining armor, but what is the alternative when you see corpses floating down the river like fish after a poisoning? After less than three months the death toll in Rwanda is estimated at somewhere between 300,000 and half a million.

The first questions that spring to mind: Why so late and Why the French? Couldn’t the U.N. have acted sooner? If the obstacle to an African force was logistics or absence of transport, couldn’t the French (or the Americans) have provided help there, instead of taking command? The next questions relate to the second stage of the operation: The French troops are now supposed to protect the Tutsis from the Rwandan armed, forces and Hutu militias, but how will they cope with the advancing forces of the R.P.F.? And will they hand over the job to the U.N. in a few weeks or stay on as a key element in the international force? In other words, are the French acting from humane motives, or are they acting as the main postcolonial power in the area?

As to the morally defensible but politically difficult-to-define right of intervention, the drama springs from the contrast between the world government that humanity cries out for and the capitalist world disorder we have in its place. To hope for a U.N. force preserving justice on the planet is wishful thinking. So we must choose between evils, consider each case on its merits and determine whether an intervention will do more good than harm. But we must also keep a vigilant eye on arsonists disguised as firemen and neocolonialists in humanitarian clothing.