Reading Letters

The US Congress recently attempted to pass a law officially recognizing Turkish genocide of Armenians. Backed by more than half the members of the House, the bill called upon the Turkish government to acknowledge the Ottoman Empire’s role in committing atrocities against its Armenian population from 1915 to 1924. Yet the motion was ultimately quashed. As a New York Times editorial put it, “Historical truths must be established through dispassionate research and debate, not legislation.” In other words, history, like religion, is not something the state should be institutionalizing. French President Nicholas Sarkozy would seem to disagree. He has vociferously supported France’s own law that not only recognizes Armenian genocide but makes it a criminal offense to deny that it occurred. More recently, Sarkozy ordered all French high schools to read to their students a letter written by a 17 year old Communist resistant killed during WWII. Ostensibly, this was part of a larger effort by Sarkozy to rouse France from its cycle of self-criticism and “make the French proud of France again.” In the letter the boy, named Guy Moquet, writes to his family that though he knows he will die, he hopes to be as courageous as those who came before him. “I wish with all my heart that my death has served some purpose,” he writes. While most instructors obligingly presented the letter, a sizable number refused, prompting questions of whether the state should be appropriating historical events to advance its own political agenda. In fact, the first place Sarkozy made reference to the letter was on the campaign trail last winter. In a speech to the Youth for UMP (Sarkozy’s political party) in 2006, he used Guy’s efforts and experience as an example of the great potential of youth. An adviser to Sarkozy, Henri Guaino, suggested that he continue to allude to Guy and his letter during the campaign to express the candidate’s own values. Sarkozy subsequently made reference to Guy at least six other times on the trail, invoking him as someone who “sacrificed himself for his country and for freedom and who serves as an example for all young French people.” On the day of his acceptance of the presidency, Sarkozy had a student read the letter on national TV and decreed that it would be read to all students at the beginning of the school year.

The response to this announcement was mostly positive. Even the head of France’s Communist party, who had originally lambasted Sarkozy for invoking the name of France’s second greatest teenager (behind Joan of Arc) while concurrently trying to limit the economic opportunities of young French minorities, came around in favor of it. Yet many teachers and historians would accuse Sarkozy and his administration of confusing history with memory—that is, positing the generally accepted positive memory of the Resistance as the official historical interpretation of World War II-era France even though real history involves a critical inquiry and interpretation of the past that is ever-changing.

Not everyone agrees on the proper way to view Guy’s legacy. While he certainly died during the Resistance period, whether he was executed as a resistant or as a Communist has been disputed. At the moment of his execution, neither Guy nor his comrades had engaged in any real resistance activity, at least in defense of the country, and many teachers decried Sarkozy’s attempt to turn a resistant Communiste into a resistant nationalist. What’s more, the French Communist party is known to have collaborated with the Nazis in the opening months of the occupation so as to ensure the continued publication of their newspapers.

This aspect was just one facet of France’s complicated wartime history that was left out of the administration’s instructions for presenting the letter. Jean-Pierre Azema, a renowned historian of Vichy France and the resistance, highlighted the administration’s whitewashing, writing in the journal l’Histoire that reading the letter to schoolchildren has the effect of obscuring France’s collaboration and ambivalence during the occupation.

Other opposition politicians weighed in. François Bayrou, head of France’s new centrist political party MoDem and a likely challenger to Sarkozy in 2012, stated it was not the function of the president to order schools what to teach. Claude Bartolone, a socialist minister, viewed the decision as another attempt by Sarkozy to co-opt heroes of the left to better hide his conservative policies—during the campaign, Sarkozy had invoked the names of pre-World War I socialist leader Jean Jaures and former president and Popular Front chief Léon Blum to bolster his republicain credentials.

Sarkozy’s response to his detractors was both aggravated and dismissive. He said only “a handful of teachers” refused to participate, but that he was “not very happy” to see that protests had occurred at all. His special adviser Guaino rebuffed the accusations that the government was exploiting history for political gain. “The election is over,” he said. “[Guy Moquet] was a communist activist, not an activist for the UMP [Sarkozy’s political party].”

The official number released by the government had 93% of schools participating in the reading program. France’s union of principals contested this statistic, judging it “impossible” to derive a hard number on the question.

Whatever the number may have been, the critics seem to have partially prevailed: the education minister recently announced that future commemorations will celebrate the “youth resistance movement,” with Guy Moquet and his letter playing only an ancillary role. Yet in a country where the Revolution itself was once declared by Clemenceau to be its own interest group, it’s likely that this is not the last time that the French will attempt to mix politics and the past.