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How to teach colonial history? More troubles in France

by Alexandra in WMass Thu Dec 8th, 2005 at 06:29:13 PM EST

At the last minute, France's interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, postponed his trip to the French Caribbean Antilles islands because of local protests about a new French law that request "school programs recognize, in particular, the positive character of the French overseas presence s, notably in North Africa" ("Les programmes scolaires reconnaissent en particulier le rôle positif de la présence française outre-mer, notamment en Afrique du Nord"). The minister's own inflammatory statements during the violence in the country's poor suburbs a few weeks ago (he promised to "get rid of the scum") were also on the minds of demonstrators.

Read more to hear from the demonstrators, find out how this law passed, what is taught in French schools today and voice your opinion on how to teach colonial history to 14 year olds and share what you learned in secondary school....


On December 7th, the day Sarkozy was due to land in Martinique, according to local television news, between 800 -1000 people took to the streets in Fort-de-France chanting "loi de la honte" (which would translate more or less to "the shameful law") and asking for it's repeal. Demonstrators explained:

I'm demonstrating for the repeal of this villainous law and this constant provocation directed at blacks

Je manifeste pour l'abrogation de cette loi scélérate et cette provocation continuelle vis a vis de noirs

This law which is an insult to all of those colonized

Cette loi qui est une injure a l'ensemble des peuples colonisés

Paul Ejime, a staff writer for the PanAfrican news agency Panapress, wrote about the new law and wonders:

The intension of the authors of the dubious legislation is unclear, but perhaps they would want the world to believe that Europe's struggle for and eventual partitioning of Africa at the Berlin conference in 1884, was a charitable gesture to "liberate" natives of the colonies.

It is also even possible, critics say, to "spin" the very well-documented inhuman slave trade, for instance, to show that millions of Africans uprooted from their countries to sugar cane plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean were done a great favour by the European slave merchants?

This would be in spite of overwhelming evidence showing that the African slaves were taken against their will, some in shackles and even with their mouths padlocked.

Luckily, no textbooks will erase the paraphernalia of slavery in places like Badagry in Nigeria and Goree island in Senegal, which are living testimonies to the evils of man's inhumanity to man.


I will quote from Paul Ejime's article again since he sums up quite nicely the context in which the law was passed:

On 29 November, the lower house of the French parliament voted by183-94 to uphold a law that puts a so-called positive spin on the country's chequered colonial past, ignoring complaints from historians and the former French territory of Algeria.

Legislators from the governing conservative UMP party had already passed the law in February when only a handful of deputies were present and it only came under full public scrutiny in recent months with a petition by history teachers.

Under the law, school textbooks are to address France's "positive role" in its former colonies and requires that "school programmes recognize in particular the positive character of the French overseas presence, notably in North Africa."

The law has embarrassed conservative Chirac and could delay the signing of a friendship Treaty between France and Algeria, a North African country, held up as France's one-time colonial jewel that won independence in 1962 after a brutal eight-year conflict, which France only recently admitted as a war. [...]

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has equated the law with "mental blindness," saying it smacks of revisionism while the Algerian Parliament has called it a "grave precedent."

Defending the piece of legislation, French Education Minister Gilles de Robien has said that textbooks would not be changed, but Socialists in the European country consider the law offensive to former colonies and French citizens with roots in areas whose history would be affected.

The original February 23rd, 2005 law is aimed at expressing the nation's gratitude and acknowledgement of the contributions of French repatriated from the former colonies. The law also clarifies the modalities under which cash benefits are given to individuals from the former colonies, such as Harkis, who served as auxiliaries' in the French army.

The first article of the law read as follows:

The nation expresses it's gratitude to the women and men who participated in the works accomplished by France in the former French departments in Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Indochina as well as the territories previously under French sovereignty.

The article that was targeted for repeal is article 4 (click here to get the French version of the repeal legislation that did not pass):

Article 4:
The university research programs give to the history of the French overseas presence, notably in North Africa, the place that it deserve

School programs recognize, in particular, the positive character of the French overseas presence, notably in North Africa, and give the history and the sacrifices of the French army fighters from those territories the prominence they deserve.

The cooperation that allows for the connecting of the oral and written sources available in France and abroad is encouraged.


The French national secondary school curriculum addresses issues related to colonization mainly in 3eme when most students are 14. An article in L'Express this past September point out

If the war in Algeria, decolonization and independence are taught "with their complexities" since the 1980s, the history of the slave trade is poorly represented, except in the French Caribbean Antilles islands. Even though the Taubira law expected "school programs to give [it] the important place it deserves". We are still waiting for the implementation rules to take effect. Often, the mention of this particular period relies on the good will of the instructors, their knowledge of the subject and the disparity of the textbooks available.

A review of the French secondary history curriculum reveals that teachers are expected to spend 7 to 8 hours with 3eme students (14 year olds) on the events from the cold war to today, which includes: east-west relations, decolonization and the collapse of the communist block. In it's examples on how to approach this curriculum the ministry of education advises:

a detailed chronological study of decolonization is not possible. Two maps suffice to represent this global phenomenon, before focusing on the study of two particularly significant examples of end of the two great colonial empires:
-    The decolonization of India, as an example of the modalities of the British disengagement and it's post colonial consequences
-    The decolonization of French Africa that shows how France broke from it's colonial past, progressively and without bloody conflict in Black Africa, but with difficulty in Algeria where the confrontation was accompanied by a national trauma.

Teachers are also expected to spend between 5 and 7 hours with students in the previous grades to review "Europe exploring the world" and "The carving up of the world". In Metropolitan France students cover, among other themes, the creation of the first colonial empires and compare the colonial maps of 1815 and 1914. In contrast students in the same grades in the DOM-TOM (French Overseas Departments and Territories) have a slightly different curriculum set forth by the ministry of education in recognition of the specificities of these regions. In Guadeloupe, French Guyana and Martinique students study the sugar and slave trade in the 17th and 18th century and under the theme of "Europe and it's expansion in the 19th century" they, along with students in the Reunion, focus on "the colonial social structure and economy with an emphasis on slavery and it's abolition".
Why are these topics not included as much in what Metropolitan France (the hexagon) students learn? Would it not help to integrate that history into the "culture generale" of all French 14 year olds?


What do you think? What did you learn about colonial history when you where in secondary school?

Did you study the slave trade in school?
. No 16%
. Yes in lower secondary school 33%
. Yes in high school 33%
. Yes but only at univerisity 0%
. Yes on my own 16%

Votes: 6
Results | Other Polls
On the front page of Le Monde today:

left, on the paper: "the positive role of colonisation"
right, "I have prepared a text on the positive role of torture"

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Thu Dec 8th, 2005 at 06:34:14 PM EST
Yet another great Plantu summary!! Thanks for adding it.
by Alexandra in WMass (alexandra_wmass[a|t]yahoo[d|o|t]fr) on Fri Dec 9th, 2005 at 02:22:03 PM EST
[ Parent ]

The Fates are kind.
by Gaianne on Sat Dec 10th, 2005 at 03:18:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Arundhati Roy put it best: talking about the merits of colonialism is like debating the pros and cons of rape.
by tyronen on Thu Dec 8th, 2005 at 09:20:32 PM EST
Arundhati rules! Again :D
by Johannes on Fri Dec 9th, 2005 at 10:41:24 AM EST
[ Parent ]
What is the status of the law? Can Chirac refer it back to the Assembly for a second reading? Can he refer it to the Constitutional Council?

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Dec 9th, 2005 at 06:16:00 AM EST
My understanding is that another attempt to get this Article 4 repealed will take place early next year. Alfred Almont, national assemble depute from Martinique and member of the UMP (Chirac's party), is committed to the repeal. In a recent interview he advised that if the issue is taken up at the beginning of the year that given parliamentary procedures it would take 3 to 4 months to get the article repealed. Similarly Alfred Marie-Jeanne, another national assemble depute from Martinique emphasized that the repeal will be pursued again. At the same time Chirac, Villepin, as well of the minister of overseas territories seem to be trying to distance themselves from the legislation by their statements to the press.
by Alexandra in WMass (alexandra_wmass[a|t]yahoo[d|o|t]fr) on Fri Dec 9th, 2005 at 03:13:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You french people have so manyyyy things to learn.. from Spain.

Our national holiday is the hispanity day, we celebrate and recall the genocidie of thousands of indians in the hands of spanish conquerors in South and Cnetral America..

Look, if we can celebrate a genocide, I do not see why you could not point out the excelence of slavery and colonization.

A pleasure

I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact. Levi-Strauss, Claude

by kcurie on Fri Dec 9th, 2005 at 10:25:11 AM EST
The Canadians call that same day "Thanksgiving".

The USA celebrates "thanksgiving" on a different date, to commemorate the following:

In 1637, the Pequot tribe of Connecticut gathered for the annual Green Corn Dance ceremony. Mercenaries of the English and Dutch attacked and surrounded the village; burning down everything and shooting whomever try to escape. The next day, Newell notes, the Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony declared: "A day of Thanksgiving, thanking God that they had eliminated over 700 men, women and children." It was signed into law that, "This day forth shall be a day of celebration and thanksgiving for subduing the Pequots."

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Dec 9th, 2005 at 10:47:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Columbus' letter, announcing the discovery of the New World
En conclusión, a fablar desto solamente que se ha fecho este viage que fué así de corrida, que pueden ver Sus Altezas que yo les daré oro cuanto hobieren menester (12), con muy poquita ayuda que sus altezas me darán: agora especería y algodon cuanto Sus Altezas mandaran cargar, y almastiga (13) cuanto mandaran cargar; é de la cual fasta hoy no se ha fallado salvo en Grecia y en la isla de Xio, y el Señorio la vendo como quiere, y lignaloe (14) cuanto mandaran cargar, y esclavos cuantos mandaran cargar, é serán de los idólatras; y creo haber fallado ruibarbo (15) y canela, e otras mil cosas de sustancia (16) fallaré, que habrán fallado la gente que allá dejo;

In conclusion, ... Hour Highnesses can see that I shall give you all the gold you may need, with very little help from Your Highnesses: as much of spices and cotton as Your Highnesses demmand; ... and as many slaves as you demand, taken from the idolaters...

Sorry, I'm not really up to translating 15th century Spanish... But the point is, Columbus' intention was quite clear from the outset.

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Dec 9th, 2005 at 11:03:19 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I would say millions. It is a shame that in Spanish Eduction we don't read the Very brief retelling of the destruction of the Indies (1552) by Fray Bartolomé de las Casas. I only know about this text from seeing it quoted in A People's History of the United States.

France is going down a slippery slope of historical revisionism with this Article 4.

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman

by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Dec 9th, 2005 at 11:15:42 AM EST
[ Parent ]
MIllions, of course, thousands and thousand should have been read.

Brilliant pieces Migeru, brilliant

A pleasure

I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact. Levi-Strauss, Claude

by kcurie on Fri Dec 9th, 2005 at 02:22:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, let's see. I went to some good private schools in the UK. In secondary school my choices meant that I only did History up to age 16.

Frankly, in secondary school we barely touched on colonisation. In essence we just skipped over it. From Glorious Revolution to World War One somehow we missed it.

In primary school however, we got a good dose of the greatness of Empire. Not really a deep perversion of the facts, more just a direction towards pretty artefacts and steam engines and the like.

The propaganda element came more from the old films on TV more than anything.

Fortunately for me, my father (being Indian) had firm views on the downsides of British colonisation, so I did get a balanced view, but no thanks to my education.

by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Fri Dec 9th, 2005 at 01:55:03 PM EST
At the public high school I attended in France our history teacher did cover the slave trade in quite some detail but mostly as a British/US phenomenon (ironic since we where in Bordeaux which was one of the big French ports active in the slave trade). As for colonial history I know we covered the early Spanish and Dutch colonial empires but not much of more recent colonial history. The sense was that the more recent history was too controversial and would not make it onto our final Baccalaureate exam so it wasn't a priority.
by Alexandra in WMass (alexandra_wmass[a|t]yahoo[d|o|t]fr) on Fri Dec 9th, 2005 at 04:03:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
To be fair, in primary school we did get a good overview of the horror of the slave ships running from Liverpool to Africa to USA. But, we didn't get much context on the effects beyond the horror for the individual.
by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Fri Dec 9th, 2005 at 04:15:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yet another proof that we French have yet to come to grip with our colonial past, notably in North Africa, to paraphrase the law in question.

And this was passed last February, without much fanfare as a trailer to another law about veteran soldiers compensation. Very few people took notice.

Now that the smelly material has eventually hit the proverbial fan, Chirac & Villepin are frantically trying to extricate themselves out of the mudhole, without hurting their own troops.

Since the outbursts of urban violence last month, there's been a resurgence of racial slurs in France, notably (that's the adjective du jour) from right wing lawmakers.

Just yesterday, commenting on Sarkozy's postponed trip to the French Caribbean, Lionnel Luca, deputy (UMP) of the Alpes-Maritimes district, talked about "a tempest in a teapot" and added that "those in the Caribbean who are making parallels with slavery are not above accepting welfare checks from the former colonists!".

Yep, there are jerks everywhere, even in the French Parliament; what do you know... Welfare queens driving a Cadillac can't be far behind I expect.

Jerome is regularly highlighting the casual slurring of the Frenchs in the British press, but we can find plenty of this in our very own press these days.

by Bernard (bernard) on Fri Dec 9th, 2005 at 04:44:56 PM EST
No no it's not welfare queen driving cadillac it's polygamous families living in palaces thanks to the French dole (I'm being ironic here of course).

The quote from the UMP depute is disturbing. How can we get anywhere with Sarkozy and Le Pen like rhetoric?!!  I find it so frustrating.

by Alexandra in WMass (alexandra_wmass[a|t]yahoo[d|o|t]fr) on Fri Dec 9th, 2005 at 05:31:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
First question: I think the idea that France should discuss the good of colonialism is just as bad as if the U.S. were to discuss the good of segregation.  We would be laughed off the world stage forever.  This is just a bad idea all around.

Second one: When I was in public high school (2000-04), we learned about some of the more nasty aspects of U.S. imperialism.  Things such as our abominable conduct in Hawaii in the 1800's, the Spanish-American War, our wars in Latin America, and of course the Indian Wars from the English colonies until 1890.  It was far more in-depth when I entered college, but my public education did give us an basic idea that all was not as good as others would have us believe.

by DH from MD on Fri Dec 9th, 2005 at 08:44:54 PM EST

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