From Fri May 20 10:00:22 2005
Date: Thu, 19 May 2005 11:54:24 -0500 (CDT)
From: Riaz Tayob <riazt@IAFRICA.COM>
Subject: [toeslist] France: Re-writing Colonialism in a Positive Light
Article: 212631
To: undisclosed-recipients: ;

Row over French history

By Jon Henley, Mail&Guardian, 1 May 2005

More than 1 000 historians, writers and intellectuals have signed a petition demanding the repeal of a new law requiring school history teachers in France to stress the positive aspects of French colonialism.

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, says the petition.

The law of February 23 2005, as it is known, was intended to recognise the contribution of the harkis, the 200 000 or so Algerians who fought alongside Frances colonial troops in their countrys war of independence from 1954 to 1962, before being abandoned to a dreadful fate when the French withdrew—about 130 000 were executed as traitors.

But an unnoticed amendment, apparently tabled by MPs with close ties to Frances community of former Algerian settlers, added a new clause to the Bill. It reads: School courses should recognise in particular the positive role of the French presence overseas, notably in North Africa.

Opponents are angry in part because, in the words of one eminent historian, Pierre Vidal-Naquet: It is not up to the state to say how history should be taught.

Vidal-Naquet told French newspaper Libiration: In Japan, a law defines the contents of history lessons, and textbooks minimise Japans responsibility in the Sino-Japanese war. If France wants to be like that, its going the right way about it.

Other leading historians said the need for such a law might be understandable in Germany but not in France. It is imposing an official version of history, in defiance of educational neutrality, said one professor, Gerard Noiriel. I cannot accept the authorities dictating to teachers the contents of their lessons.

But the principal objection to the law is simply that, like most forms of colonialism, the French empire caused great suffering. The anti-racist group Mrap said the law is an insult to intelligence, a denial of democracy, a rejection of historical reality and a brake on academic freedom. Above all, it shows contempt for the victims.

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 Frances 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 the prosperity of Caribbean islands.

The first of Frances two empires began in the early 1600s in what are now Nova Scotia and Quebec. Louisiana had been added by the end of the century, as had Caribbean territories including French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique and Saint-Domingue (now Haiti).

At the same time, France got a foothold in West Africa (Senegal) and in India. Most of that empire was lost by 1815, but a second began in 1830 with the invasion of Algeria. Southern Vietnam and Cambodia followed, then, after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 to 1971, the rest of French Indochina, Tunisia and Morocco, and almost all of Western and Central Africa.

Noiriel said the law is all the more dangerous because of attempts by certain interest groups to confiscate history for their own ends.

He added: It can only contribute to a feeling of humiliation. It is directly opposed to the policy of integration the government claims to be implementing.