On Friday, Jon Henley reported in the Guardian (UK) about the passions that have been stirred by an attempt to force teachers by legislation to recognize . . . the positive role of the French presence overseas, notably in north Africa. -- Historians, the left, and the overseas departments of Martinique and Guadeloupe are particularly intense sites of opposition to the clause, which was slipped into legislation without debate in the dead of night by a right-wing lawmaker on February 23, 2005. -- In a more radical critique published Monday by WSWS, Antoine Lerougetel argued that It would be a mistake, however, to think that the initiatives for the development of a chauvinist ideology originate only from the extreme right and the Sarkozy wing of the UMP, however. -- Noting that the right-leaning million-strong pieds noirs form part of the electoral and political base of the right and the far right, especially in the southeast, Lerougetel maintained that there is an ideological shift to the right being carried out by the ruling Gaullist party, the UMP (Union for a Popular Movement), spearheaded by the partys chairman and minister of the interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, . . . aimed at consolidating support from the most reactionary sections of French society. -- As for the left opposition to the law, whose character Lerougetel finds embarrassing, he wrote: The reticence of the Socialist Party and the Communist Party to engage in a controversy about the role of French imperialism in the colonies does not merely stem from their immediate priority, the nationalist defense of the institutions of the state and the interests of national capitalism, but also from their wish to hide their past complicity in the crimes of French colonialism. -- Both Socialists and Communists were involved in the Sétif massacre of May 8, 1945, Lerougetel points out....
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK
By Jon Henley
** A new law calling on schools to promote positive views of French colonialism has provoked outrage **
December 16, 2005
The ghosts of France's colonial past have returned to haunt its present, to the embarrassment of the center-right government and the fury of historians and immigrant associations.
A heated debate is currently raging over what to do about article four of the so-called Law of February 23, 2005, an amendment slipped in unnoticed during the final stages of the bill's passage through parliament.
The disputed clause, inserted by a group of provocative rightwing MPs headed by Christian Vanneste, currently on trial for alleged homophobia, reads: "School courses should recognize in particular the positive role of the French presence overseas, notably in north Africa."
This has upset historians, on the grounds that the state should not write history. It has angered the left, from socialists through communists to Trotskyists, which, in an all too rare display of unity, has come together to demand that the clause be scrapped (and gathered 180,000 signatures for a petition to that effect).
It has infuriated immigrant groups and citizens in France's overseas territories, who know full well that "the French presence overseas" was, on occasion, every bit as brutal and exploitative as that of any other colonizing power. And it has severely embarrassed the government.
The prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, has repeatedly confirmed in the national assembly and on television that there is "no official history" in France, and that it is "not up to parliament to interpret our past."
But, with the more or less willing backing of his UMP party, he has so far refused to countenance any immediate move to repeal the law, preferring instead to wait for the results of a three-month parliamentary inquiry ordered this week by President Jacques Chirac.
(Mr. Chirac is plainly feeling less than comfortable himself with the whole matter: in the same breath as ordering the inquiry, he stressed that "the recording of our collective memory can only be a task for historians," and promptly proposed a national day of remembrance for the descendants of French slaves.)
In the assembly this week, Mr. de Villepin resorted to the kind of patriotic lyricism he always indulges in when he is unsure of himself. "I am proud to be French, and I accept all France's history," he insisted, to howls of "Repeal, repeal!" from the opposition benches.
"We are a great nation that has known hard times and grandeur. In our history there are exemplary battles, the affirmation of the ideals that has forged our identity, the great principle of the 1789 revolution," he added.
There are also a number of less glorious episodes. In the words of a second petition signed by 1,000 historians, writers, intellectuals, and entertainers, "In retaining only the positive aspects of colonialism, this law imposes an official lie on massacres that at times went as far as genocide, on the slave trade, and on the racism that France has inherited today."
Leading historians are outraged. "In Japan, a law defines the contents of history lessons and textbooks minimize Japan's responsibility in the Sino-Japanese war," said one eminent professor, Pierre Vidal-Naquet. "If France wants to be like that, it's going the right way about it."
Immigrant groups and angry citizens of France's overseas territories are less concerned with state interference in the teaching of history than with the cruel lie that the clause perpetuates. Like most forms of colonialism, the French empire caused enormous suffering.
Laws governing how certain periods of history should be taught in French schools have been passed before: a 1990 law outlaws denial of the Holocaust and a 2001 law dictates that the slave trade be described as a crime against humanity. But those episodes are unambiguous.
"The reality of the Holocaust and slave trade is self-evident," said Thierry Le Bars, a law professor at Caen University, who has also signed the petition. "It is by no means self-evident that France's colonialism was positive. Think of the ignoble legal status of the Muslims in Algeria, of the massacre of up to 5,000 Algerians in Setif in 1945, of all the unfortunates who endured the hell of slavery to assure France's Caribbean prosperity."
Feelings are running so high in the Caribbean departements of Martinique and Guadeloupe that even the popular UMP interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, was forced to call off a planned visit last week in the face of impassioned marches and the threat of further protests.
"This law is an insult to our forefathers and wholly unacceptable in a democratic republic," said a spokesman for one Martinican association, the Collective for the Repeal of the Law of Shame. "Imagine how the reaction would be in mainland France if a road was suddenly renamed Benefits of German Wartime Occupation Street."
NEW LAW REQUIRES TEACHERS TO PRESENT A POSITIVE ACCOUNT OF FRENCH COLONIALISM
By Antoine Lerougetel
World Socialist Web Site
December 19, 2005
On November 29 the French National Assembly confirmed its support for a law that glorifies French colonial conquest and the French empire and makes it obligatory for teachers to give a favorable gloss to the history of this brutal past.
The move is part of an ideological shift to the right being carried out by the ruling Gaullist party, the UMP (Union for a Popular Movement), spearheaded by the partys chairman and minister of the interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, President Jacques Chiracs rival on the right of the party. It is aimed at consolidating support from the most reactionary sections of French society: in particular the officer corps, steeped in the memory of their colonial exploits and notions of national honor, who believe that France should never have relinquished her empire, and the embittered pieds noirs white settlers, a million of whom were forced to leave Algeria in 1962 when then President Charles De Gaulle ceded Algeria to the nationalists. The pieds noirs form part of the electoral and political base of the right and the far right, especially in the southeast.
When the French army left Algeria in 1968 it abandoned many of the Harkis, Algerians serving in the colonial forces and administration, to the mercy of the victorious FLN (National Liberation Front), who slaughtered them by the thousands, a fate of which the French were fully aware. Those Harkis who did manage to escape to France were left in ghettos and are fighting to this day for pension rights and other benefits. The new law partially addresses this situation but also recognizes the rights of the OAS (Secret Army Organization). The OAS wanted to organize a putsch against De Gaulle in France and to set up a military dictatorship in opposition to the 1962 Evian agreement ending colonial rule in Algeria.
It would be a mistake, however, to think that the initiatives for the development of a chauvinist ideology originate only from the extreme right and the Sarkozy wing of the UMP.
The education reform of François Fillon earlier this year made compulsory the learning by heart of the words of the national anthem, The Marseillaise, in primary schools. Deputy Michel Diefenbacher, commissioned by Chiracs former prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, presented a report in February 2003, aiming to complete the actions of national solidarity to the rapatriés [pieds noirs] and to publicize the collective achievements of France overseas.
In March 2003, the present minister of foreign affairs, Philippe Douste-Blazy, put forward the proposition: The positive achievements that the whole of our citizens experienced in Algeria during the period of the French presence is publicly recognized.
The present minister of defence, Michèle Alliot-Marie, a Chirac supporter, stated in March 2003: The recognition of the positive achievements of our compatriots in these territories is a duty for the French state.
Not only do Sarkozy, President Jacques Chirac, and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin hope to win voters from the neo-fascist National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen. They also seek to create the ideological climate and to gather the forces needed to break the resistance of workers and youth to the destruction of living standards and democratic rights required by French big business to compete in the globalized world economy.
The paragraph in article 4 of the law, which is provoking a broad movement of opposition, states: The school syllabuses recognize in particular the positive role of the French presence overseas, notably in North Africa, and [devote] to the history and the sacrifice of the soldiers of the French Army originating from these territories the eminent place which is due to them. The soldiers of the French Army referred to here are the Harkis who participated alongside the forces of French imperialism in the two world wars and particularly the Algerian war (1954-1962).
Libération of March 15, 2005, describes how UMP deputy Christian Vanneste, a member of the ultra-right Club de lHorloge, along with National Front academics and intellectuals, moved the above quoted article, as an amendment, in the afternoon session of the National Assembly on June 11, 2004, claiming that it would tend to make the younger generations more aware of the positive side of the French presence in Africa and Asia.
The newspaper points out, No member of the Socialist or Communist opposition came forward. The amendments were voted for. They were not questioned, either in the Senate or at the second reading in the Assembly. The law was promulgated.
It was university and secondary school history teachers, researchers, and primary school teachers who took the lead in opposing the law after it had been approved by all parties, to be circulated on February 23, 2005. Their movement was reinforced by the response of the Algerian government to the provisions of the law on June 6 and its questioning of the planned signing of a treaty of friendship between France and Algeria if the law was not repealed.
The hostility to the law is such in the French overseas territories that Sarkozy was forced to cancel a planned visit to the former Caribbean island slave colonies Guadeloupe and Martinique. Consequently, some ministers and members of the ruling Gaullist UMP, especially those representing these territories, have been obliged to speak out against article 4. President Jacques Chirac has attempted to defuse the situation by stating that it is not for the law to write history, setting up a multi-party mission to assess the action of parliament in commemoration (mémoire) and history -- to report in three months time. Meanwhile, however, the legislation still has the force of law.
THE CHARADE OF THE LEFTS OPPOSITION
Those now mobilizing against article 4 of the Law of 23 January 2005 bearing the Gratitude of the Nation and National Contribution in favour of Repatriated French People include all the left parties (Socialist Party, Communist Party, Greens, Left Republican Party) and the Lutte Ouvrière -- LO (Workers Fight) and the Ligue Comuniste Revolutionaire -- RCL (Revolutionary Communist League). At the initiative of Dominique Strauss Khan, former Socialist Party (SP) minister of the economy, finance, and industry in the Plural Left government of Lionel Jospin (1997-2002), a press conference on December 15 brought together leaders of all these political organisations in support of a petition calling for the repeal of article 4.
The event, which was designed to restore to the Socialist Party some semblance of left credentials as a defender of civil liberties, had the full support of the leaders of the far-left parties: Arlette Laguiller of LO and Alain Krivine of the LCR participated alongside François Hollande, the SP leader.
The LCRs leaflet of the week, dated December 12, calls only for the repeal of article 4 as does the December 16 editorial of the weekly Rouge, despite its observation that if article 4 is scandalous, the law itself is unacceptable.
Lutte Ouvrière calls for the repeal of the entire law and publishes material on the role of the Socialist Party in supporting French imperialisms colonial wars and oppression. This did not prevent Arlette Laguiller [from] politely participating in Strauss-Khan and Hollandes press conference, anxious to occupy her place covering the left flank of Frances political establishment.
The record of the Socialist Party in relationship to the law is particularly embarrassing for its leaders. Hollande claimed that the SP voted for it in 2004 by negligence, in sessions where only a handful of deputies were present. The Communist Party, which has a parliamentary group and which was part of Jospins Plural Left coalition, is in no better position.
The parliamentary motion for the repeal of article 4, submitted by the Socialist Party, was voted down by the UMP on November 29, the same day that Sarkozys latest anti-terror law was passed unopposed by the Socialist Party, which abstained. The Socialist Party, with the enthusiastic support of the media, used its pose of defending the rights of historians and teachers to treat French colonialism without state interference to divert attention from the assault on civil liberties represented by both the 1955 law relating to the imposition of the ongoing state of emergency and the anti-terror law. The combination of these two laws gives the state the right, amongst other powers, of blanket surveillance of citizens by closed-circuit cameras and access to the records of phone and Internet providers as well as full control of the media.
The sham of the press conference and the campaign against article 4 is apparent when the rest of the law -- which the left is prepared to accept -- is examined. The first article proclaims: The Nation expresses its gratitude to the women and men who participated in the achievements of France in the former French departments of Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and in Indochina as well as in the other territories formerly under French sovereignty. While paying tribute to those who sacrificed themselves for the empire, there is none for the victims of colonialism or those, from France and the colonies, who fought against its depredations and to free them from its yoke.
FRANCE COLONIAL RECORD
The defenders of the law fail to mention French imperialisms participation in the slave trade from the sixteenth century and the continuation of slavery in its colonies until abolition in 1848. They point to the benefits of civilization brought to the peoples of the empire -- education and medical science -- but omit the fact that these were only available to a tiny proportion of the colonized population. They talk of the introduction of roads and railways, but not of the forced labor destructive of the lives of thousands of workers that built them, or of the purpose of these means of transport: to better exploit the conquered territories. The brutality of the conquest, the Native Code, which ensured total domination by the colonizer, the destruction of the native economy and agriculture, resulting in famine, go unmentioned by the supporters of the law. Unmentioned too is the reduction of Algerias population by 700,000 between 1830 and 1870 and that of the Ivory Coast by a million in the colonial period and the theft of their land. In 1954, 25 percent of Algerian land was the property of 2 percent of the settler population.
The narrowing of the opposition to the law to article 4 serves to limit the discussion to the freedom of historians and teachers to work. It prevents the development of a real understanding of the history of French colonialism, which is essential to the development of a contemporary political movement of the working class.
The reticence of the Socialist Party and the Communist Party to engage in a controversy about the role of French imperialism in the colonies does not merely stem from their immediate priority, the nationalist defense of the institutions of the state and the interests of national capitalism, but also from their wish to hide their past complicity in the crimes of French colonialism.
On May 8, 1945, during the parade in the Algerian town of Sétif celebrating the victory over the Nazis, Algerian nationalists brandished their flag. The repression of this act led to an uprising which was followed by massacres of many thousands of Algerians perpetrated by local white settler militias and the army. The government, in which the Socialists and the Communists had ministers, sent 40,000 troops to crush all resistance. The Communist minister of aviation, the Resistance hero Charles Tillon, provided the airplanes. In 1947, under the presidency of the Socialist Vincent Auriol, the government parties again supported the bloody suppression of the Madagascar insurrection against colonial rule.
In 1955, François Mitterrand, later to become the Socialist president of France, then minister of the interior, asserted in the face of the national liberation movement: Algeria is France . . . The only negotiation is war. In 1956 the Socialist and Communist deputies voted the Socialist leader Guy Mollet full powers, which he used to send a massive military force and gave the notorious torture generals Massu, Bigeard, and Aussaresses carte blanche to crush the rebellion. Mitterrand, as justice minister, endorsed their powers. The generals methods are evoked in Gillo Pontecorvos film The Battle of Algiers. (See A timeless portrait of the anti-colonial struggle in Algeria)
In 1987, President Mitterrand and Prime Minister Chirac appointed General Maurice Schmitt, a practitioner of torture in the Algerian war and unrepentant defender of its use, commander in chief of Frances armed forces.
Left press in France all but ignores Sarkozys Anti-Terrorist Bill
[9 December 2005]
France: Gaullist officials stoke up racism to justify state of emergency [22 November 2005]