A less catchy headline, I know, but it allows me to catch you up on two recent events of historical or potential historical signficance here in France.
… Were I to question here that the Turkish killing of Armenians in 1915 qualifies as genocide — which I’m not doing — I would be breaking the law. (It should be said that in Turkey — though this may be in the process of changing — I might have problems posing the opposite case.) That’s because of a law passed by Parliament a few years ago that made it illegal to deny that a genocide took place. A Turkish friend objects to the qualificaiton, making the point that atrocities took place on both sides. I can listen to her. I can discuss privately with her. But were she to convince me, if I subsequently tried to make her argument in public, I would be breaking the law. As you might be able to devine, I’m uncomfortable with this. And yet… and yet, if you would have asked me if I was uncomfortable with a previous law Parliament passed in the same spirit — perhaps the law whose passage made this one possible — that made it illegal to deny the Holocaust, I probably would not have answered no. Because that’s my history. That’s my blood. And the idea that a Jean-Marie Le Pen would be able to get away with diminishing the organized gassing and otherwise killing of 6 million Jews, not to mention Gypsies, homosexuals, and others, as simply “Sure, abuses took place” sickens me.
Let’s take a third proposed law now. In 2005, the Parliament tried to prescribe that schools had to teach that French colonialization brought good things to the colonized. For historians and teachers, this was the threshold. The law died. And now, earlier this week, Parliament officially changed its mind and pledged to make no more laws prescribing or proscribing history lessons. (Er, the law is not retroactive.)
Prescribing is another matter. Last week, on the eve of 11 novembre (Armistice Day commemorating the end of the Grand War, or WWI), the head of a government commission came out with a report saying France has too many commemorations (as opposed to too many commissions) — 11 at last count, I believe. Instead, he said, they should be winnowed to three: 8 mai, 11 novembre, and of course 14 juillet. (In France, holidays are frequently named after the days the commemorated event took place, rather than the event itself, so you have to be quick on your feet; in the States, we call 14 juillet Bastille Day.) So days like that commemorating the end of Slavery or the raffle of the Vel’ D’Hiv — after July 16, 1942, when 12,884 Jews (including 7,000 kept wthout food for five days at the Velodrome d’Hiver in Paris’s 15th arr), were rounded up by the French police for the Nazis to be deported to the death camps — commemorations like these would be eliminated. In other words, the effect would be that only days which mark (notwithsanding their tragic elements) occasions for national pride would be remembered, days of shame forgotten. And this is before we even get to those whose victims, or the families of whose victims, are waiting in line for their own days, notably those of the up to 200 Algerians thrown in the Seine in 1961 (for the crime of demonstrating) under the direction of Marucie Papon, the not yet indicted war criminal who was then prefect of Paris. (And proving the importance of commemorations is that the only reason many people know about this is that in October 2001 the the city of Paris put up a plaque in their memory on the much-traversed stairs to the St. Michel Bridge.)