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France divided over how to cast its colonial past

A controversial law on history education reveals deep societal fault lines.

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Hardly had the fires died down in the Paris suburbs, as the November rioting by immigrant youths petered out, than the flames of another conflict fed by France's colonial past began to sweep through the political landscape here.

This time they are metaphorical. But the passionate debate under way over whether French history teachers should stress positive aspects of colonialism is generating almost as much heat. The argument reveals the same ambivalence among French politicians about their country's former empire and its peoples which also fuels much of the immigrants' alienation. It has also raised questions about whether a democracy can have an "official history."

The controversy "very much speaks to what is happening in France today," says Nancy Green, who teaches immigration history at the School for Higher Social Science Studies in Paris.

"Questions of memory keep popping up," setting competing groups' recollections against one another, she explains. "It's hard to tell when they'll be sufficiently digested" into a commonly accepted version of history.

The trouble started last February, when lawmakers from the conservative ruling party quietly slipped a clause into a bill requiring schools to "recognize in particular the positive character of the French overseas presence, notably in North Africa."

History teachers protested, and in November the opposition Socialists, whose leader Fran├žois Hollande said had voted for it "inadvertently," tried and failed to overturn it in Parliament.

Diplomatic pandemonium ensued. Algeria suspended negotiations on a friendship treaty with France that was meant to seal the two countries' final reconciliation. Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy cancelled a trip to France's Caribbean island possessions when local leaders said they would not meet him. And fierce arguments broke out at home both about the nature of French colonial rule and about whether politicians should tell schools how to teach history.


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