PARIS (Jan. 29)
The French government has tapped the son of famous Nazi-hunters to help decide the fate of a contentious law that seeks to interpret the country’s colonial history. Arno Klarsfeld, 39, seems to attract attention in France with everything he does, including when he took Israeli citizenship and served two years in the border police during the recent intifada.
Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy asked Klarsfeld to issue what amounts to an official opinion on the rewriting of part of a 2005 law, known as the “Feb. 23 Law,” which basically states that there were positive aspects to France’s colonial empire.
Klarsfeld presented his recommendations to Sarkozy in late January, arguing that the law should stress both positive and negative aspects of colonization.
The law has proved hugely controversial with French historians, most of whom are considered leftists. They say politicians should not make laws concerning the public’s view of history, and that the last word on history should be left to historians only.
Klarsfeld — the son of Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, who have detailed the deportation and deaths of 76,000 French Jews in World War II — first attracted attention when he represented plaintiffs from the French Jewish community during the 1994 trial of Paul Touvier, a Lyon-area pro-Nazi militia leader. He also made headlines during the 1997-98 trial of Maurice Papon, the Bordeaux-area police chief under France’s World War II-era Vichy regime.
Klarsfeld says he agrees that there were positive aspects of colonization, such as French efforts to build infrastructure and roads, hospitals and schools, which are all mentioned in the Feb. 23 Law. However, the text neglects the well-known negative aspects such as slavery, racial injustice, economic exploitation.
“The bottom line is that the law is not clear, so it must be rewritten,” Klarsfeld says. “Either it must state that there were positive and negative aspects, or it must take a more neutral stand. And the main point is to distinguish between colonization and slavery, which the law currently does not do.”
At base, the debate is about whether history — referred to as “la memoire” in French — should be codified by law. Klarsfeld does not share the historians’ critique.
“Many historians, especially those on the left, want the writing of laws to have nothing to do with how we look at history,” Klarsfeld says. “I believe that the law should set a moral standard for how we interpret history.”
Current school textbooks, written long before this law, discuss only the negative side of colonization — the slavery, killings, deprivation and economic theft — but that should be changed to a more evenhanded approach, Klarsfeld says.
In a country like France, interpreting the past is up for grabs.
More than 1,000 historians, along with human rights groups and teachers associations, want the Feb. 23 law abolished, along with another piece of legislation called the Taubira Law that labels slavery a crime against humanity, and other laws that make it a crime to deny the Holocaust or the Armenian genocide.
“The historians want to keep everything for themselves,” Klarsfeld says. “But they’re wrong. Before the Papon and Touvier trials, textbooks in France stated that the 76,000 Jews were arrested and deported by German soldiers. In fact, three-quarters of them were arrested and deported by French Vichy police, not the Germans. After the trials and after the very courageous declarations by President Chirac in 1995 placing the blame squarely on Vichy, the textbooks were rewritten.”
The French press has focused on the battle between historians and lawmakers more than on the law itself.
The hubbub has also highlighted the ongoing battle between Sarkozy and President Jacques Chirac. As Sarkozy was asking Klarsfeld to take up the rewriting mission, Chirac was asking the speaker of the Parliament, Jean-Louis Debray, to do the same thing. Debray is to make his conclusions public in February.
“For me right now, it is important to recognize the truth of the historical context,” Klarsfeld says.
“The European powers conquered lands that became colonies. History is war. We don’t have to feel guilty about this now,” he says. “For example, has anyone asked the Arabs to say they are sorry about conquering Spain and half of France? No. That is the historical context. So the law should be based on history.”