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Society

by Rosa Moussaoui

History’s Revanchists

Translated Tuesday 13 December 2005, by Steve McGiffen

Willingness to negotiate: in refusing to review the law which requires teachers and historians to emphasise the ’positive role’ of colonialism, the UMP is whitewashing the crimes committed under French domination and insulting the victims and their descendants.

February 2005: the National Assembly voted in favour of a law offering the nation’s gratitude to people repatriated to France following decolonisation and to ’harkis’, ethnically Arab Algerians who had served in the pro-French militia during Algeria’s war of independence in the 1950s. Article 4, originating in amendments surreptitiously slipped into the text since its introduction on June 11, 2004 by two ’ultras’ of the parliamentary right, Christian Kert (Bouches-du-Rhone) and Christian Vanneste (Nord), salutes the “positive role of the French presence” in, notably, North Africa, and states that “school curricula and university research programmes” should “accord to the history of the French presence overseas, notably in North Africa, the place which it merits.” A short paragraph, but one replete with symbols, and one which will arouse the indignation of teachers and historians who refuse to allow themselves to accept the dictation of an official history. A disaster for those who suffered under colonialism and who now live in France, as well as for their French descendants. And a provocation heavy with diplomatic repercussions, one which threatens to reduce to nothing the efforts undertaken to seal the reconciliation between France and Algeria, compromising the signing of a treaty of friendship between the two countries.

“An Inexcusable Tragedy”

And yet, only a few days after the vote, the amphitheatre at the University of Ferhat-Abbis in Sétif in Algeria reverberated to the sound of a speech from Hubert Colin de Verdière, France’s Ambassador in Algeria, a speech whose content was unexpected. Through his words, France for the first time acknowledged its responsibility in relation to the appalling massacre perpetrated by the French Army at Sétif on May 8, 1945. The diplomat spoke, in recalling this crime of colonialism, of “an inexcusable tragedy”, “a dramatic event which left a profound mark on Algerians who, ever since then, have been dreaming of their freedom”, and of “memories which endure, scars exacerbated by too many years of war.” Concluding that “the young generations of Algeria and of France have no responsibility for the confrontations that we lived through”, he stressed that “this must not lead us to forget or deny history. Better to attend clearly to the sound and the fury, to the violence of the events and the players of this history, avoiding if possible ill-founded certainties.” Six months later, the President of the Republic, during a visit to Madagascar, evoked the memory of the massacre in 1947, by the French colonial power, of the Madagascan uprising. A first for a French head of state. Unfortunately, by refusing, last Tuesday, to remove Article 4 of the Law of 23 February 2005, by hardening already quite extremist positions, in shamelessly and in contempt of history singing a eulogy of praise to colonialism’s alleged benefits, the UMP’s deputies in the National Assembly have reduced to nothing the hope for an acknowledgement and official condemnation of crimes committed in the name of France. They must take the grave responsibility of rubbing salt into wounds yet unhealed, not to say gaping, not only in those countries known to this day as ’ex-colonies’ but at the very heart of French society. When speech full of hate and nostalgic revanchism, of nostalgia for the days of casual racist insult and punitive action, moves from the mutterings of an obscure fringe to scale the walls of the Palais Bourbon (1), it is the very cohesion of the French nation which is under threat.

“To suppress this article would be to go back to denying France’s contribution to the development of these countries!” So proclaimed the UMP deputy for Vaucluse Thierry Mariani. But what development, when France, after having confiscated the land, plundered natural resources, and enslaved populations reduced to hunger and poverty, left these countries drained of their life-blood? What development, when the French in Africa, following independence, continued to organise, with the utmost cynicism, neocolonial pillage and political domination? “Colonial France enabled the eradication of epidemics, thanks to treatment dispensed by military doctors. The French overseas brought fertility to uncultivated land, to swamps,” proclaimed, for his part, the UMP deputy for Alpes-Maritimes, Michèle Tabarot.

Airbrushed away, the lands seized from Algerian peasants. Rubbed out of the record, the devastating famines which were the direct result of this monopolistic occupation of the land, such as that of 1857. Forgotten, the miserable camps which took the place of hospitals in the plantations of Cochinchine, or the emaciated peasants left to rot without care. A mere detail, the corpses hauled out of the Seine after the bloody repression of 17 October 1961.

After decades of official forgetfulness, silence and amnesia, of insults and things which should have been said left unsaid, of amnesties and dismissed complaints, the majority party now claims the right to rewrite history and rehabilitate "the civilising work" and erase from the history books crimes which cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children.

A Dangerous Chain of Events

Motivated as much by electoral considerations as by the everyday racism which is eating away at France’s vitals or by the vengeful feelings of those who have never accepted independence, these deputies, with the discreet approval of ministers of the Republic, have set in motion a dangerous chain of events. In a country which is breaking apart, in the framework of an unprecedented social crisis, they are stirring up hatred and division. They are adding grist to the mill of racism, of reaction, of communitarianism, and grist which will endure. The right is demolishing one by one every instance of solidarity. But that isn’t enough. They feel the need once again to push this country into turning its back definitively on its founding values and principles, the very values and principles in the name of which men and women rose up, in the ’colonies’ as in the ’metropolis’, against colonial barbarism. And that will end by leaving the country broken into pieces.

"I want to say to the children of the problem neighbourhoods, whatever their origins, that they are all daughters and sons of the Republic," solemnly affirmed Jacques Chirac during his brief speech following the violence on the estates. How can they feel themselves to be such when those who claim to embody this same Republic languish in hatred and contempt for their memories, and in a past which did this to their forebears, to their parents? How can they feel themselves to be such when racist allusions, direct or implicit, are now an everyday phenomenon among the representatives of the party which governs the country?

"Colonialism carries within it terror, it’s true," wrote Aimé Césaire in 1954 in La Nouvelle Critique ("The New Critic"). "But it carried also within it, still more baneful than the exploiter’s whip, a disregard for humanity, a hatred of mankind, in short, racism. However you look at it, you always arrive at the same conclusion. There’s no colonialism without racism." A racism which today threatens, by denying the past, to prevent France, as it actually is - diverse, pluralistic, colourful - from building a future.

(1) The building housing the National Assembly


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