A controversy recently arose in France 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. After having described this controversy in a first part, this paper will then provide with an analysis of the latter. Indeed, mi first intention 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.
[...] The memorial laws are more likely to create passionate and moralizing responses as regards the events they deal with (e.g. “slavery was than encourage a critical work of memory nourished by history that would try to situate slavery in its historical context and to imagine what slaves could have gone through in their everyday lives. The second objection to the legislative form derives from the hindsight of Certeau and more precisely the use of Certeau made by Ricoeur. Ricoeur was indeed very influenced by de Certeau. [...]
[...] My contention is limited to the observation that the passing of the memorial laws is already symptomatic of the shaping of a pluralist form of democracy in which interest groups and the Media play a crucial role. Crisis of politics More globally, it can also be argued that memorial laws” are symptomatic of a crisis of French politics. My main argument here would be the following: the fact that the Parliament starts to legislate about the past is a compelling sign of its incapacity to legislate for the future. [...]
[...] 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 fact that Taubira went hand in hand with a revival of the debate over the independence of the West Indies illustrates how such laws can contribute to the affirmations of groups and make the national bond become more fragile. Yet one can offer arguments in favor of these groups of “victims”. As Elie Wiesel said, the torturer always kills twice. First he kills his victim. Then he kills the memory of the killing. From this perspective there is no denying that the syllabus of the Republican School has tended to overshadow the history of slavery and slave trades. [...]
[...] 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. 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. [...]
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