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Law on teaching rosy view of past splits France

Competing views of history have set off an emotional debate in France and places it colonized, following passage of a law here mandating that French schools give more emphasis to the positive aspects of French colonization.
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As a great maritime and colonial power in centuries past, France relished its role in taking its culture to the far corners of the globe -- French schools, language, trade, modern medicine and various other trappings of its civilization.

But people in those places were not always happy with what accompanied the French largess, including war, slavery, torture and the eradication of their cultures.

Those competing views of history have set off an emotional debate in France and places it colonized, following passage of a law here mandating that French schools give more emphasis to the positive aspects of French colonization.

Critics call the law an effort to obscure abysmal treatment of blacks and other indigenous peoples during colonial times and suggest that it mirrors a similar attitude toward immigrants in France today.

The link between the eras "is very, very great discrimination," said Victorin Lurel, a socialist member of Parliament from the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. "The youngsters in the suburbs are sons of immigrants -- they are colored and blacks and Algerian, and their parents were discriminated against in French society, and that is one motivation that was at the foundation of the violence and riots in the suburbs" that rocked France for three weeks in October and November, he said.

The law is part of an otherwise uncontroversial bill that Parliament passed in February to improve conditions for French people who left Algeria after independence there and moved to France.

'Positive role'
The language in question calls for French school programs to "recognize in particular the positive role of France's presence overseas, notably in North Africa, and give due prominence to the history and sacrifices of French army fighters from these territories."

"I wanted to pay homage to all the troops from our overseas territories who fought so valiantly for France during World War II," the measure's sponsor, Christian Vanneste, said in an interview, "and to pay tribute to the one million Frenchmen and some 150,000 repatriates who had to leave Algeria in 1962."

The bill generated criticism in France and its former colonial realm at the time, and the debate was reignited after Parliament reaffirmed the law two weeks ago.

Some history teachers and left-wing politicians contend that conservatives were trying to legislate away massacres and torture perpetrated by French troops during Algeria's 1954-62 war of independence and to whitewash France's role in the slave trade and the subjugation of indigenous cultures in the Caribbean.

Jean-Marc Ayrault, head of the main opposition Socialist Party in Parliament, told lawmakers that the law recalled "the good old times of the colonial troops, when France came to convert the natives to enlightened civilization. This means passing over in silence the acts of violence, the abuses, the oppression with which this period is riddled."

'Mental blindness'
The law derailed plans for the signing this year of a new friendship treaty between Algeria and France. Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika said the law demonstrated "mental blindness" in France. The French "have no choice but to recognize that they tortured, killed, exterminated from 1830 to 1962," he said at a rally. They "wanted to annihilate the Algerian identity," so that "we were neither Berbers nor Arabs nor Muslims. We had neither culture nor language nor history," he told the crowd.

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, the early front-runner in the 2007 presidential race, was forced by the controversy to cancel a trip to Martinique and Guadeloupe, Caribbean islands that are part of France. Leaders there said they would boycott meetings with him, and dozens of groups called for street demonstrations.

Sarkozy, who caused a storm in October by referring to rioting youths, many of whom were from immigrant families, as "scum," seemed unfazed. "This permanent repentance, which means we have to apologize for France's history, borders on absurdity," he said in an interview with France 3 television.

A week ago, trying to cool tensions, President Jacques Chirac created a commission "to evaluate the action of Parliament in the fields of memory and history" and ordered it to report back within three months. "In the Republic, there is no official history," Chirac said. "The law's job is not to write history. The writing of history is the task of historians."

His conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) has a sizable majority in the National Assembly and was largely responsible for passing the law.

Some of the criticism of conservatives' attitude toward the colonial past parallels recent complaints about treatment of the country's immigrant population -- particularly French youths with parents who came from former colonies in Africa.

'Religion and immigration'
On the one hand, anger over the law "is a prolongation of the debate about religion and immigration" that the riots touched off, but on the other, "it's a way of hiding what France did in terms of slavery and racial discrimination," said Vincent Tiberj, a political scientist at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris.

French history is taught in a much more balanced way today than it was 30 years ago -- when the war in Algeria and the French Vichy government's collaboration with Nazi Germany were typically soft-pedaled or ignored, Tiberj said. The new law seems aimed at rolling back gains made since then, he said.

But during the debate in Parliament, UMP lawmaker Christian Kert said the law was needed more than ever, given the recent unrest around Paris.

"Is it not useful to recall France's positive role to many young French people with an immigrant background, who are most exposed to messages underlining the negative aspects of the colonial period?" Kert said. "How can they feel any pride to be French if historians only present France to them as a state which exploited their countries of origin and tortured their ancestors?"

Special correspondent Gretchen Hoff contributed to this report.