Liberté takes back seat as scholars told: think 'positive'

January 6, 2006

The French Government has sparked protests by prescribing how historians should approach the Republic's colonial history, writes Jane Marshall

Historians are on the march in France. They are calling for the repeal of a law that seeks to place conditions on their teaching and research and requires school history courses to emphasise the "positive role" of French colonialism in North Africa.

Like British historians, who are concerned about the potential impact of government anti-terrorism measures, French historians believe it is unacceptable for the state to tell teachers what to teach or historians how to conduct their research.

"Since the Third Republic, the rule has been autonomy for historians... within the framework of the ministry's curriculum," says Claude Liauzu, a historian of contemporary Mediterranean societies specialising in relations between Islam and the West.

Odile Goerg, professor of contemporary African history at the University of Paris-7, adds: "The process of history is not a judgmental process, for good or bad, negative or positive, as the law claims to make it. We don't place ourselves on a moral plane, but on a scientific one."

The law, enacted in February, recognises the part played by French colonists repatriated from Algeria and by the harkis , Algerians who fought with the French in the bloody 1954-62 War of Independence. The contentious clause, added without controversy during the Bill's first reading, requires university research programmes to "accord to the history of the French presence overseas, notably in North Africa, the place that it merits". It states that "school programmes (must) recognise in particular the positive role of the French presence overseas, notably in North Africa, and grant to the history and sacrifices of combatants of the French army who came from these territories the outstanding recognition to which they are entitled".

In March, Liauzu and colleagues launched a petition against the law, which attracted more than 1,000 signatures within three weeks.

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika condemned the legislation as "bordering on revisionism". There have also been rallies. In November, French opposition MPs led by the Socialists tried to repeal the measure, but the amendment was rejected by the majority Union for Popular Movement (UMP), which is sympathetic to colonial settlers in Algeria.J The law provoked indignant reactions from other Algerians, including historian Daho Djerbal, who blamed it on politicking, and Abdelaziz Belkhadem, general secretary of the Algerian National Liberation Front, who said that UMP MPs had "established a law that falsifies history".J Since the failed vote, the protests have intensified. The intellectual heat has also been turned up by the riots by North African youths across France and the Government's reaction to them. Last month, 19 historians issued a declaration calling not only for the withdrawal of the colonisation legislation but also of other laws that they say threaten their right to academic freedom. These include one that targets revisionists and makes it illegal to deny the existence of crimes against humanity, notably the Nazi gas chambers; a one-clause Act that recognises the 1915 Armenian massacre by the Turkish army as genocide; and a law under which slavery and the slave trade constitute a crime against humanity.

One of the declaration's authors, Jean-Pierre Azéma, said he had brought together a group of historians at the Institute of Political Studies, in Paris, where he is professor of history, in support of Olivier Pétré-Grenouilleau, a history teacher at the University of Bretagne-Sud in Lorient. Pétré-Grenouilleau's book on the slave trade, Les Traites Négrières , won the 2005 French Senate history prize. Pétré-Grenouilleau is being sued in the civil courts under slavery legislation by the Collectif des Antillais-Guyanais-Réunionnais after saying in an interview in the newspaper Journal du Dimanche that the slave trade was not comparable to genocide or the Holocaust. He is accused of revisionism and if found guilty could lose his job.

In December, the newspaper Le Monde reported that many academics were living in fear of being taken to court or being threatened by pressure groups. In the same issue, historical novelist Françoise Chandernagor, herself a descendant of slaves, explained her anxiety over the proliferation of laws picking out isolated events in history. "Writing laws of this kind costs Parliament nothing politically or financially but can cost historians dearly," she writes.

But not all academics agree, and 33 researchers and other critics have launched a counter-declaration.

Meanwhile, more than 40,000 people including many schoolteachers have signed a petition for the repeal of the colonisation law's clause four.

Critics believe clause four was introduced under pressure from associations of people repatriated to France from North Africa who do not want their place in history to be forgotten.

President Jacques Chirac said: "In the Republic there is no official history; it is not for the law to write history; the writing of history is the concern of historians."

But he has not gone so far as to offend UMP MPs by demanding the repeal of the clause. Instead, he has appointed the president of the national assembly, Jean-Louis Debré, to conduct an all-party inquiry "to assess the action of Parliament in the domains of history and memory".

Whatever the legal outcome, it seems likely that the "positive role"

measure may never reach French classrooms. Gilles de Robien, the Education Minister, would have to sign decrees of application to make it operative.

This has not been done, even though the law was due to be introduced in September. He also said there would be "no change in current school history courses, which make it possible to tackle the issue of the French presence overseas in all its aspects".

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