In the first part of this paper, I give an account of a recent controversy that arose in France and in which historians played a significant role. This controversy involves a number of actors: the French government, which passed the so-called "memorial laws"; the interest groups that lobbied the Parliament to pass them; the historians who became polarized and reacted in various ways and with different justifications to these laws; the academic community as a whole, which supported the historians or else rejected their reasoning; and finally the media, which publicized the controversy. In a second part, I give an analysis of the controversy. My first idea was to try to write the immediate history of the controversy that would treat it as symptomatic and relate the main ideas and sources of disagreements that fed the debates to broader trends in the French society and in the French legal and political system. But, I changed my mind. It would indeed be too artificial for me to refrain from judging the different arguments and developing my own position as I am French, connected with the field of social science and dealing with a contemporary issue. Of course, my developments bear the trace of my original intent. I am therefore especially interested by the symptomatic character of the passing of the memorial laws and the debates that arouse last year. Still, these analyses are integrated in the content of a reasoning that will ultimately lead me to reject all the positions that I read. I will first try to draw some distinctions between the "package" called "the memorial laws" and to reject some of the distinctions that seem irrelevant to me. Then, the basis of my analyses will be a cost/benefit assessment of the memorial laws, operated at both a theoretical and a practical level, that will lead me after two detours to the conclusion that, maybe, the last three memorial laws should be regarded as too costly compared to the social benefits that they bring. Surprisingly, though, this potential cost will appear to be more significant for the memorial groups who called for these laws than for the historians who demanded their abrogation.
[...] and a practical level, that will lead me after two detours to the conclusion that, maybe, the last three memorial laws should be regarded as too costly compared to the social benefits that they bring. Surprisingly, though, this potential cost will appear to be more significant for the memorial groups who called for these laws than for the historians who demanded their abrogation. Part an account of the controversy To understand the controversy, which arose toward the end of 2005, one should go back to February 23rd 2005, when the French Parliament passed a law aiming at providing national recognition and financial compensation to the Harkis, i.e. [...]
[...] It incorporated in the law the voice of unhappy memories and claimed that “colonization was worth fighting Holocaust was a genocide”, “slave trade a crime against humanity” and “there was an Armenian genocide”. At this point, I want to make a detour that will not only help us to understand better the broader trends that the controversy over the memorial laws are symptomatic of but also point out some of the potential benefits of the memorial laws. Indeed, the fact that the legislator relayed through such laws the memorial claims made by particular groups is in itself interestingly symptomatic of at least two crises: the crisis of the Republican ideal, and more generally, the crisis of French politics. [...]
[...] the ability of the public to discern what is true. Still nothing can guarantee that the public will not act irrationally. This last argument is all the more compelling as we know how seductive revisionist simplifications can be. In contrast with the Gayssot law, the other three laws do not directly pursue public order purposes. In the case of the law recognizing the Armenian genocide, one should note that the denial of the Armenian genocide is not part of an anti-Armenian propaganda campaign inside France. [...]
[...] Moreover, the private interests vested in the society should not contaminate the legislator. Members of the Parliament do not represent local interests but the nation as a whole. Therefore they are not the defendant of particular interests and groups but have to pursue the General Good Bien Commun”). As a result of this ideal of citizens delivered from their private interests and associations, the Republic constantly refused to fund infra-national groups. Today, the rise of multiculturalism (often called “communautarisme” to highlight its negative connotation) challenge the Republican ideal in asking for the official recognition and public funding of “cultural diversity”. [...]
[...] Gayssot was passed by the Parliament in 1990 as a response to the spreading of revisionist publications, questioning the existence of the gas chambers and the reality of the Holocaust. French professor Robert Faurisson was one of the leading revisionists. He was sentenced to jail in the early 1980s on the basis of the 1881 law on the freedom of the press, punishing incitement to racial hatred and defamation. In 1990, The Gayssot Law came as a symbolic step, adding the following article to the 1881 Law: “Those who dispute the existence of one of the crimes against humanity defined in the article 6 of the statute of the military tribunal annexed to the 1945 London agreement shall be punished”. [...]
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