France divided over how to cast its colonial past
A controversial law on history education reveals deep societal fault lines.
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As French society has changed over the past half- century, with several million North African immigrants moving to France and raising children as French citizens, "more and more people do not recognize colonial history told from the colonizers' perspective," points out Guy Pervillé, a history professor at Toulouse University. "They want their memories reflected in history, too."Skip to next paragraph
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That has led to another historical flap, prompted by the recent publication of "Napoleon's Crime," a book that blasts France's greatest national hero for reintroducing slavery in the French empire in 1802.
This is an issue rarely raised in histories of Napoleon's rule, points out Patrick Karam, head of the "Guyanese, Caribbean and Réunion Collective" of intellectuals from France's overseas regions. "Historians have not done their job," he complains. "They have been pro-Napoleon propagandists."
So touchy is the subject that nobody from the government dared attend a December ceremony celebrating the 200th anniversary of Napoleon's greatest military victory, at Austerlitz.
It is unclear how the new law would actually change history teachers' classes, even if it stands. Historians are up in arms, though, because this is not the first time that the French parliament has written historical judgments into laws that are enforceable by the courts.
In 2001, the National Assembly passed one law declaring the fate of Turkish Armenians in 1915 to have been a genocide, and another pronouncing the trans-Atlantic slave trade a crime against humanity.
Olivier Pétré-Grenouilleau, a respected historian, will appear in court next month to face charges, brought by Mr. Karam's group, that he made statements in an interview implying that the slave trade was not a crime against humanity. (In fact, he said that it didn't constitute genocide.)
"If a citizen breaks the law he is punished," says Karam, who wants Dr. Pétré-Grenouilleau suspended from his university teaching job. "Why shouldn't a historian who breaks the law be punished?"
Historians have rallied round Pétré-Grenouilleau, seeing the lawsuit as an attack on academic freedoms. Some of the country's best-known historians demanded earlier this month that all laws "restraining a historian's freedom, telling him on pain of punishment what he should ... find," should be abolished.So long as French colonial history remains so politicized, however, unable to escape the different claims of competing recollections, it seems likely to remain a political problem.
"France, which needs to find itself and come together, cannot move forward into the future without facing its past with courage," said Azouz Begag, the Minister for Equal Opportunity.
"France has to accept that it is not at the head of an empire any more," adds Benjamin Stora, a historian at the Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilization in Paris. "This is a debate that history settled 50 years ago. We have to get over it."