Why do the French need laws to dictate the right interpretations of the past? It is because of the confusion in French minds between history and memoryby Tim King / February 26, 2006 / Leave a comment
French men and women, white, middle-aged, return in droves to Oran and Algiers as more than tourists but less than guests. They congregate on the street corners where once they played as children, gazing at the homes from which they were expelled in 1962. NostAlgéria, a growing phenomenon in France, has now become a political lobby: witness the recent legislation “expressing the nation’s gratitude for the work done and terrible sacrifices made by French colonists,” and making it obligatory that “school programmes acknowledge the positive role of the French presence overseas, particularly in north Africa.” If it seems odd that France needs laws to dictate which interpretation of the nation’s past children must learn, look no further than the confusion in French minds between memory and history.
The French teach history well. At primary school, children begin at the beginning, pre-history, and are taken through the Romans, Charlemagne, the middle ages, the revolution, Napoleon and, if time allows, up to the first world war. By the time he enters secondary school at 11, each child has a general overarching view, if he’s been paying attention, of the story that made France.
In the 1960s, the French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladruie pioneered research into accounts written by ordinary people. The book that drew from the collective memory of a medieval village, Montaillou, became an international bestseller and started a worldwide reappraisal of the value of memory. But now memories long dead have turned against historians. Worse, memory turns out to be fallible, even—est-ce possible?—self-interested.
For example, in 1944 the way millions of French people remembered how they had spent the previous four years left many historians speechless. Even 60 years later, a friend tells me, very few people will admit their family backed Germany against Britain, although, like hers, the vast majority did. Their refusal to face the truth, encouraged by De Gaulle and subsequent presidents, makes Marie-Pierre angry, yet she supports the recent law on France’s positive role overseas. Born in French west Africa, she is convinced administrators like her father brought nothing but good. In fact the bulk of the controversial colonisation law is concerned with increasing financial aid to white French rapatriés, like Marie-Pierre, and the harkis (Algerians who made the mistake of backing the losing side and were forced to flee). It is a blatant pre-election attempt to win votes for the centre-right UMP, as…