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Under Nicolas Sarkozy, France represses its controversial history

"One cannot reign innocently," said Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, who did his best to prove the point during France's Reign of Terror. Whether the adage necessarily applies to individuals is debatable, but a version of it certainly applies to states. Look at the history of any state that has existed for more than a few years, and you will find things it should be ashamed of--although of course the nature and extent of the misdeeds vary hugely.

But what obligation do states have to repair the injuries they do, and to repent for their crimes? In democracies, questions of this sort tend to arise on a regular basis. Should there be reparations for slavery? What about for the mistreatment, displacement, or slaughter of aboriginal peoples or ethnic minorities? Is there a statute of limitations?

Of late, it is in France where these questions seem to be coming up most regularly, and most passionately. The most important reason is that two enormously divisive and controversial episodes not only remain within living memory there, but have each given rise to intense and complex "wars of memory." The first is Vichy France, whose autonomous government willingly collaborated with Hitler's Germany, notably in the persecution and killing of French Jews. The second is the horrific Algerian war for independence, in which the French army responded to Algerian terrorism with a dirty war of its own, in a failed attempt to hold onto the most important of France's overseas colonies. In the immediate aftermath of both episodes, the same man, Charles de Gaulle, led concerted efforts at collective repression of memory in the name of national unity and healing. After Vichy, the extent of the collaboration with the Nazis (and therefore of the French role in the Holocaust) was minimized through an appeal to the myth that nearly the entire population supported the Resistance virtually from the start. After Algerian independence, as the historian Todd Shepard has recently shown, the violence of the war, and the trauma of parting with a territory that most of the French considered an integral part of their own country was dismissed, retrospectively, as part of an inevitable historical process of "decolonization." In both cases, it took several decades for the myths to be denounced as such, and for the controversies to reawaken.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, who clearly sees himself as a new de Gaulle of sorts, seems to stand on the side of repressing bad memories. He has declared that the controversies over Vichy and Algeria threaten French national identity, and in his victory speech after the presidential election in May called for "an end to repentance." Now, as Arthur Goldhammer reports in his superb blog French Politics, Sarkozy has given an interview--to Algerian newspapers, no less, on the eve of a trip to Algiers--that again rejects the idea of repentance, calling it "a religious notion and has no place in state-to-state relations." Sarkozy added for good measure that "younger generations on both sides of the Mediterranean are looking toward the future" and "do not expect their leaders to drop everything else to beat their breasts over past errors and crimes."

It would be easy to dismiss Sarkozy's stance as simple pandering to the nationalist voters whom he so effectively wooed from Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front during the recent election. Goldhammer, however, argues that Sarkozy is actually trying to stake out a consistent, principled position on a difficult issue. Given that Sarkozy has little need to pander, given his terrifically high approval ratings, and has been reaching out to the left, rather than the right since the election, I agree with Goldhammer as to the president's motives.

I disagree with Sarkozy's position, however. Does repentance really have no place in relations between states? What about German Chancellor Willy Brandt falling to his knees at the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial in 1970? Acts such as this are actually one of the few ways that states possess to acknowledge collective responsibility for crimes without forcing innocent people to pay for the acts of their parents. Brandt's gesture was just that--a gesture--but the importance of gestures in politics can hardly be minimized. And to declare, as Sarkozy is effectively doing, that the past actions of a state impose no moral obligations on its present government, or on the citizens who take pride in belonging to it, strikes me as simply obtuse.

Obviously, no state, even postwar Germany, can let itself be entirely consumed by repentance. Sarkozy obviously fears that apologizing for French conduct in Algeria--following his predecessor Jacques Chirac's public declarations of regret for Vichy's Jewish policies--will push France down a slippery slope of contrition, leading to endless demands for reparations, and endless controversies about other crimes. In France, as in the United States, there have been insistent calls for reparations for slavery, which persisted in France's Caribbean territories until 1848. Recently, a group of right-wing French legislators proposed a law that would formally acknowledge the repression of the rebel region of the Vendée, which happened in 1793-94, as a "genocide." Many in the south of France still seethe over the slaughter of Albigensian heretics there in the Middle Ages!

But the fact that the idea of repentance is so easily abused is not cause for throwing it out. It is cause for insisting that repentance come accompanied by reasoned historical judgment. Cases need to be compared with each other. Myth and legend need to be sorted out from established fact. When the last surviving victims have died of old age and their societies have ceased to bear the scars of persecution, the moral burden on the descendants of the perpetrators diminishes. True, such judgment is in painfully short supply around the world (as shown, egregiously, by those who equate the founding of the Jewish state with the attempted extermination of the Jewish people). But the task of assessing the burden remains.

Sarkozy himself, unfortunately, is not a very good judge of history. In the same interview with the Algerian newspapers, he stated that "to be sure, there were plenty of dark spots and there was much suffering and injustice during the 132 years that France was in Algeria, but that was not all there was." He also noted that the "errors and crimes" were plentiful "on both sides." These remarks fit in with recent attempts by French conservatives to establish a moral equivalence between colonizers and colonized, and to emphasize the "positive effects" of colonialism (a 2005 law, subsequently repealed, even mandated the teaching of these "positive effects" in public schools). France certainly accomplished some worthwhile things in Algeria, and the fighters of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) certainly committed their share of crimes during their struggle for independence, for which they bear responsibility. But these points are irrelevant to any consideration of France's own responsibility. If a thief breaks into your house, beats you up, steals your valuables, but then stops to fix the leaky faucet and install track lighting in the dining room, does that mitigate the crime? And is he entitled to get off because you try to stab him from behind as he is walking out the door? The "positive effects" lobby employs precisely this dubious logic, and Sarkozy now seems to be echoing it.

Chirac, in most other respects a vastly less impressive leader than Sarkozy, seemed to understand this point better. Not only did he express regret for Vichy, in a moving 1995 declaration, he also insisted on applying reasoned historical judgment even to very old controversies. Notably, in 2005, he refused to allow large-scale official celebration of the bicentennial of one of France's greatest military victories, the 1805 battle of Austerlitz, fought against Russia and Austria in the present-day Czech Republic. In doing so, he provoked indignation from many nationalists but quietly made the point that Napoleon Bonaparte's despotism and bloody imperial expansion was really nothing for France to be proud of.

So would it be appropriate for Sarkozy to make some sort of statement expressing regret for France's actions in Algeria? Absolutely. Of course, it would also be appropriate for Algeria's present leaders to express regret for the terrorism committed by their FLN predecessors. Done correctly, such statements do not necessarily undermine "national identity." To the contrary, they should strengthen it, by reaffirming the values to which the nation is supposedly committed in the first place.

By David A. Bell