Emmanuel Macron said on Thursday he "recognised the suffering" France had inflicted on Rwanda over its 1994 genocide that left an estimated 800,000 people dead.
Macron, on a visit to the African country, toured the Kigali Genocide Memorial and delivered a short speech addressed mainly to the survivors of the disaster.
He acknowledged France had been at fault but stopped short of an apology.
“France has a role, a history and a political responsibility in Rwanda," he said. "It has a duty: that of looking history in the face and recognising the suffering that it inflicted on the Rwandan people by favouring silence over the examination of truth for too long.”
When the genocide started, “the international community took close to three months, three interminable months, before reacting and we, all of us, abandoned hundreds of thousands of victims.”
France’s failures contributed to “27 years of bitter distance” between the two countries, he said.
“I have to come to recognise our responsibilities,” Macron said.
Macron arrived in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, early on Thursday and held talks with Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
His trip builds on a series of French efforts, since his election in 2017, to repair ties between the two countries.
The victims of the genocide were mainly the minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus, who tried to protect them from Hutu extremists.
Two reports completed in March and in April that examined France's role in the genocide helped clear a path for Macron's visit, the first by a French president in 11 years.
The previous visit, by Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010, was the first by a French leader since the 1994 massacre sent relations into a tailspin.
Rwanda's government and genocide survivor organisations often accused France of training and arming militias and former government troops who led the genocide.