- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 22, 2005

PARIS — France, grappling for decades with its colonial past, has passed a law to put an upbeat spin on the era, making it mandatory to enshrine in textbooks the country’s “positive role” in its far-flung colonies.

But the law is stirring anger among historians and passions in such former colonies as Algeria, which gained independence in a brutal conflict. Critics accuse France of trying to gild an inglorious colonial past with an “official history.”

At issue is language in the law stipulating that “school programs recognize in particular the positive character of the French overseas presence, notably in North Africa.”

Deputies of the conservative governing party passed the law in February, but it has come under public scrutiny only recently, after it was denounced at an annual meeting of historians and in a history professor’s petition.

An embarrassed President Jacques Chirac has called the law a “big screw up,” newspapers quoted aides as saying. Education Minister Gilles de Robien said last week that textbooks would not be changed, but the law’s detractors want it stricken from the books — something only parliament can do.

The measure is one article in a law recognizing the “national contribution” of French citizens who lived in the colonies before independence. It is aimed, above all, at recognizing the French who lived in Algeria and were forced to flee, and Algerians who fought on the side of France.

Unlike other colonies, Algeria, the most prized conquest, was considered an integral part of France — just like Normandy. Only after a brutal eight-year independence war did Algeria become an independent nation in 1962, after 132 years of occupation.

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has equated the law with “mental blindness” and said it smacks of revisionism. The Algerian Parliament has called it a “grave precedent.”

The friction has developed as France and Algeria work to put years of rocky ties behind them with a friendship treaty to be signed this year.

“Morally, the law is shameful,” said University of Paris history professor Claude Liauzu, who was behind the petition, “and it discredits France overseas.”

France was once a vast empire, including large holdings in Southeast Asia and Africa. It unraveled in the 1950s and 1960s.

Not until 1999 did Paris call the Algerian conflict a “war.” Throughout the fighting, and for decades afterward, France had referred to operations there only to “maintain order.” In colonial times, French textbooks typically depicted the French presence in the colonies as that of benevolent enlightenment, with a clear mission to civilize.

The newspaper Liberation last week published drawings from “France Overseas,” an illustrated colonial atlas of 1931 that showed “before” and “after” drawings — one a sketch of Africans cooking and eating another human being, the second a schoolhouse on a well-manicured street with a French flag flying overhead.

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