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The “Memorial Laws”

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  1. Introduction.
  2. An account of the controversy.
  3. Analysis.
    1. Drawing distinctions.
    2. A cost/benefit assessment.
  4. Conclusion.
  5. Bibliography.

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. [...]


[...] A first conclusion This exercise of distinction gives evidence to take a position that is neither that of and the philosophers nor that of Noiriel. The 19 and the philosophers call for the abrogation of the four memorial laws, but we have seen that there is a compelling public order motive that lies at the basis of the Gayssot Law which is much less prevalent in the other three laws. Noiriel argues that only the February 2005 law could endanger the historical discipline, but we have seen that this belief rests upon an erroneous judicial distinction and that the two other so called declarative laws could be given normative force by the judge. [...]

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