France, grappling for decades with its colonial past, has passed a law to put an upbeat spin on a painful era, making it mandatory to enshrine in textbooks the country’s “positive role” in its far-flung colonies.
But the law is stirring anger among historians and passions in places like Algeria, which gained independence in a brutal conflict. Critics accuse France of trying to gild an inglorious colonial past with an “official history.”
At issue is language in the law stipulating that “school programs recognize in particular the positive character of the French overseas presence, notably in North Africa.”
Deputies of the conservative governing party passed the law in February, but it has only recently come under public scrutiny after being denounced at an annual meeting of historians and in a history professors’ petition.
An embarrassed President Jacques Chirac has called the law a “big screw-up,” newspapers quoted aides as saying. Education Minister Gilles de Robien said this week that textbooks would not be changed. But the law’s detractors want it stricken from the books — something the minister says only parliament can do.
The measure is one article in a law recognizing the “national contribution” of French citizens who lived in the colonies before independence. It is aimed, above all, at recognizing the French who lived in Algeria and were forced to flee, and Algerians who fought on the side of France.
Unlike other colonies, Algeria, the most prized conquest, was considered an integral part of France — just like Normandy. It was only after a brutal eight-year independence war that the French department in North Africa became a nation in 1962, after 132 years of occupation.
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has equated the law with “mental blindness” and said it smacks of revisionism. The Algerian Parliament has called it a “grave precedent.”
The friction comes as France and Algeria work to put years of rocky ties behind them with a friendship treaty to be signed this year.
“Morally, the law is shameful,” said University of Paris history professor Claude Liauzu, who was behind the petition, “and it discredits France overseas.”
France was once a vast empire, including large holdings in Indo-China and Africa. It unraveled in the 1950s and 1960s, mostly calmly.
However, France suffered ignominious defeats in Indo-China and Algeria. Paris only called the Algerian conflict a ”war” in 1999. Throughout the fighting, and for decades thereafter, France had referred only to operations there to ”maintain order.”
In colonial times, French textbooks typically depicted the French presence in the colonies as that of benevolent enlightenment, with a clear mission to civilize.
The newspaper Liberation this week published drawings from “France Overseas,” an illustrated colonial Atlas of 1931 that showed “before” and “after” drawings, one a sketch of Africans cooking and eating another human being, the second a school house on a well-manicured street with a French flag flying overhead.
The Association of History and Geography Professors has asked that politicians “end the practice of manipulating history” and abrogate the law.
The separate petition by history professors gathered 1,000 signatures in three weeks, said Liauzu.
“We’re in a rather crazy situation,” he said. “They say the law won’t be applied but it’s up to lawmakers to cancel it.”
Beyond the real concerns over the political manipulation of historic events, there is another danger of falsely misrepresenting French colonization, Liauzu said.
“France is a country profoundly marked by immigration” with the majority of French from immigrant stock, Liauzu said. By failing to tell the truth, children of today’s immigrants ”are deprived of any past.”