France divided over how to cast its colonial past

A controversial law on history education reveals deep societal fault lines.

Hardly had the fires died down in the Paris suburbs, as the November rioting by immigrant youths petered out, than the flames of another conflict fed by France's colonial past began to sweep through the political landscape here.

This time they are metaphorical. But the passionate debate under way over whether French history teachers should stress positive aspects of colonialism is generating almost as much heat. The argument reveals the same ambivalence among French politicians about their country's former empire and its peoples which also fuels much of the immigrants' alienation. It has also raised questions about whether a democracy can have an "official history."

The controversy "very much speaks to what is happening in France today," says Nancy Green, who teaches immigration history at the School for Higher Social Science Studies in Paris.

"Questions of memory keep popping up," setting competing groups' recollections against one another, she explains. "It's hard to tell when they'll be sufficiently digested" into a commonly accepted version of history.

The trouble started last February, when lawmakers from the conservative ruling party quietly slipped a clause into a bill requiring schools to "recognize in particular the positive character of the French overseas presence, notably in North Africa."

History teachers protested, and in November the opposition Socialists, whose leader François Hollande said had voted for it "inadvertently," tried and failed to overturn it in Parliament.

Diplomatic pandemonium ensued. Algeria suspended negotiations on a friendship treaty with France that was meant to seal the two countries' final reconciliation. Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy cancelled a trip to France's Caribbean island possessions when local leaders said they would not meet him. And fierce arguments broke out at home both about the nature of French colonial rule and about whether politicians should tell schools how to teach history.

President Jacques Chirac insisted in a special address in December that the French state had no intention of promoting an official history. "Laws are not meant to write history," he said. "The writing of history is for historians." France "has known moments of light and darker moments. It is a legacy that we must fully assume ... respecting the memory of everyone."

Mr. Chirac also added that he would form a commission to decide what to do about the law and report back in three months. "It does not take much," he warned, for history, "the key to a nation's cohesion," to become "a ferment for division."

That, argues Catherine de Wenden, a specialist on immigration, is the problem with perceptions of the war in Algeria, which ended with Algeria's independence in 1962.

"There were the colonists, the Algerians who fought with the French, the Algerians who fought against the French, the French soldiers called up to fight - each of these groups has drawn different conclusions from the war," Ms. de Wenden explains. "It is not possible for them all to have one common vision."

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."

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."

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