EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the December 31, 2005, issue of National Review.
There is nothing quite like a stupid and unnecessary law to raise the ideological temperature. On February 23 of this year, the French National Assembly passed such a law, requiring school teachers of history to emphasize the positive role of French colonialism overseas, particularly in North Africa. There were immediate anti-French demonstrations in Algeria and the Antilles. The French minister of the interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, felt obliged to cancel an official visit to the French West Indies, legally part of France rather than a colonial possession, at the beginning of this month because of the ideological furor that the law caused and continues to cause.
President Chirac has tried to calm tempers, both inside the country and out, by stating that it is not for the law to write history but for historians to do so. Unfortunately, he has not consistently been of this opinion: For example, much to the annoyance of Turkey, he signed a law in 2001 stating that France publicly recognized the genocide of the Armenians in 1915. It is difficult to believe that this was merely a disinterested and belated recognition of the truth, and had nothing whatever to do with Turkey’s application to join the European Union, which France opposes.
History is usually contentious, of course: We always tend to view the past through the spectacles of our present discontents and our political, social, and philosophical preoccupations. Long gone are the days, at least in Europe, when history could be taught from the purely patriotic standpoint, as the continuous progress of the country from dizzy triumph to dizzy triumph, whose very defeats were glorious because even they contributed to the eventual victory of the present.
Count Benckendorff, the head of the czarist secret police under Nicholas I, said that the point of view from which Russia must be written about was that Russia’s past was glorious, her present magnificent, and her future beyond the wildest imagining. (The last was certainly true.) Even a partial restoration of this program, such as that represented by the French National Assembly’s law, now not only looks ridiculous but is bound to arouse rancor in all those who have something to complain of. And not even the most patriotic Frenchman would deny that there are many such aggrieved people around the world…
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