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 the rapatriés notoriously swell the ranks of the Front National. For that reason it will not be repealed, as many historians would like. But, a year after it passed on to the statute book Chirac—in a liberal, post-riot mood—has said it will be rewritten.
There have been two other such laws, both designed to win the votes of particular communities. Passed just before the 2002 presidential elections, the first states that what the Turks call the “massacre” of Armenians in Turkey in 1915 was really genocide (thus a crime against humanity). Strange, perhaps, that France should legislate about another country’s history, but winning the vote of the large Armenian community in France is important.
The second such law acknowledged that the slave trade is a crime against humanity. Passed on the eve of the same 2002 elections, it panders to the populations of Martinique, Guadeloupe, French Guyana and Reunion, all French départements. There was anger in the black French Caribbean because the only aspect of slavery taught in schools was its abolition, thus maintaining the republic’s virtuous image. But while trying to mollify French Caribbean citizens, the law on slavery illustrates the absurdity of legislation that bends history to win votes. Slavery was abolished during the revolution, but eight years later reinstated by Napoleon: thus in a spectacular own goal, France’s greatest military and administrative hero stands condemned alongside Hitler. I sometimes have the impression that nobody reads French laws before they become statute, and only rarely afterwards.
Unfortunately, these particular laws were not put on the shelf to gather dust. The assiduous Collectif des Antillais, Guyanais et Réunionnais uses the law to take legal action against any historian they consider revisionist, that is whose scientific research conflicts with their memory. At the moment the Collectif is taking an eminent (white) historian to court because he told a newspaper that slavery was not strictly genocide. This is contrary to the law on slavery, and offends the memory of all descendants of slaves—some six generations after the last slave died.
The same Collectif was instrumental in forcing Nicolas Sarkozy into an unprecedented cancellation of an official visit to Caribbean France simply because he did not object to the recent law on colonisation. These laws highlight how the guardians of memory have become a thought police in what one French writer has called “the sovietisation of France.”