Emmanuel Macron arrived in Rwanda on Thursday (May 27), seeking forgiveness.
The French president is hoping to reset relations after years of Rwandan accusations that France was complicit in the country's 1994 genocide.
Speaking at a memorial in Gisozi, Macron admitted that France could have done more to prevent the killings of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
"Only those who went through that night can perhaps forgive, and so could give us the gift of forgiving ourselves."
Macron's visit follows the release of a French commission of inquiry report in March.
It said a colonial attitude had blinded French officials and that the government bore a "serious and overwhelming" responsibility for not foreseeing the slaughter.
But the report also absolved France of direct complicity - a point also made by Macron.
"The killers who stalked the swamps, the hills, the churches, did not have the face of France. France was not an accomplice."
A Rwandan report found that France was aware a genocide was being prepared and bore responsibility for enabling it through its continued support for president Juvenal Habyarimana.
It was the shooting down of Habyarimana's plane, killing the president, that unleashed the 100-day frenzy of violence.
Macron's visit is the first by a French leader in more than a decade.
But the streets of the capital Kigali were devoid of the flags and fanfare that usually accompany a high level visit.
Rwanda's President Paul Kagame has previously accused France of participating in the genocide but said last week that the French report "meant a lot".
Rwandans may not be able to forget France's role, he said, but they could forgive.