Australia is not the only country where the history curriculum is a
political issue. Our “history wars” have been quite mild compared to a
dispute that has occupied France over how to treat its colonial past.

Last year, the centre-right majority in the French parliament approved
a law requiring public school history programs to recognise “the
positive role of the French overseas presence.” Given the bloodshed
associated with French colonial rule, particularly in north Africa, and
the large immigrant population from those countries, this was bound to
raise hackles.

Defence of the colonists is a totemic issue for many on the French
right, such as Jean-Marie Le Pen, who cut their political teeth in the
Algerian conflict of the early 1960s. But president Jacques Chirac
knows not to stray too far from the centre, and after much controversy
he announced at the beginning of the year that the law would be modified. “It is not for the law to write history”, he said.

This week, France’s constitutional council ruled that the clause in
question was an administrative matter, not a legislative one, thus
opening the way for it to be repealed by government decree without
having to go back to parliament. The affair is being seen as a victory
for Chirac and his prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, in their
ongoing war of nerves with interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

In the meantime, however, Chirac had opened another front
in the history wars with the announcement of 10 May as an annual day of
remembrance for the victims of slavery. But since no-one has yet dared
suggest that slavery had its “positive” aspects, this time the official
version of history looks like passing without opposition.

Peter Fray

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