France under pressure to defend its colonial past
PARIS, Dec 8 (AFP) - The French government faced mounting pressure on Thursday to revoke a law that casts a positive light on the country's colonial past and has fuelled a fierce row with Paris's overseas territories.
Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and several government figures moved to distance themselves from the contested law, which encourages schools to teach the “positive role” played by France during the colonial period.
“It is not up to parliament to write history … There is no official history in France,” Villepin told France Inter radio on Thursday — although he stopped short of calling for the article in question to repealed.
Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy was forced this week to cancel a planned trip to France’s Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, where he faced the prospect of angry protests over the law.
Rights groups, politicians and writers in overseas French territories, themselves former colonies, suspect that the legislation is an attempt to gloss over the country’s colonial past at the expense of black and Arab indigenous peoples.
The article at the centre of the dispute is an amendment to a much wider law on measures to improve the living conditions of French civilians repatriated at the end of the Algerian war in 1962.
It asks that “school programmes recognise in particular the positive role of France’s presence overseas, notably in north Africa, and give due prominence to the history and sacrifices of French army fighters from these territories”.
Introduced as a private initiative by a ruling party member and adopted without fanfare by parliament in February, the clause was later denounced by historians and left-wing politicians as an attempt to re-write French history.
Last week the centre-right ruling party voted down an opposition bid to repeal the article.
But Tourism Minister Leon Bertrand, a deputy from French Guiana, broke ranks with the government on Thursday, calling for it to be revoked in a letter to Sarkozy, who heads the ruling UMP party.
Several ministers and the UMP’s leader in parliament Bernard Accoyer have already distanced themselves from the measure.
The head of the opposition Socialists, François Hollande, said Villepin had “implicitly disavowed his government and the UMP majority” and must now go one step further by repealing the text.
Ségolène Royal, a Socialist deputy and likely contender for presidential elections in 2007, also wrote to Sarkozy denouncing the “revisionist law” and stressing the “reality of slavery, forced labour and colonial subjection”.
The rights group SOS Racisme urged the government to “show responsibility” by asking the ruling party to revoke the law, and called for work to start on a school history programme that reflects “a shared vision of France’s history”.
While the prime minister did not speak of revoking the law, he said he understood the anger of those who were offended by it.
“In the history of colonisation, those who were thrown into the belly of the galleons, who were taken across the Atlantic into the heart of the plantations — these are all living memories.”
“All of this still causes great pain,” he said.
One of France’s most eminent writers about colonialism, the former deputy Aimé Césaire, has led the chorus of protest over the law and refused to meet Sarkozy during his visit to Martinique.
On the island, which was colonised by France in the mid 17th-century, critics say the law amounted to justifying “the extermination of peoples, the eradication of indigenous cultures and widespread looting”.
Tensions with the Antilles have been fuelled further by a controversial book that depicts Napoleon as a genocidal dictator who exterminated black people in the Caribbean and even used rudimentary gas-chambers in the holds of ships.
The contested law also risks jeopardising the planned signature of a treaty of friendship between France and its former colony Algeria, whose President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has condemned it as “bordering on revisionism”.
Subject: French news