David A. Bell: Nicolas Sarkozy declares an end to French repentance

Roundup: Talking About History

[David A. Bell is a contributing editor at The New Republic and the author of The First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare As We Know It.]

... President Nicolas Sarkozy, who clearly sees himself as a new de Gaulle of sorts, seems to stand on the side of repressing bad memories. He has declared that the controversies over Vichy and Algeria threaten French national identity, and in his victory speech after the presidential election in May called for "an end to repentance." Now, as Arthur Goldhammer reports in his superb blog French Politics, Sarkozy has given an interview--to Algerian newspapers, no less, on the eve of a trip to Algiers--that again rejects the idea of repentance, calling it "a religious notion and has no place in state-to-state relations." Sarkozy added for good measure that "younger generations on both sides of the Mediterranean are looking toward the future" and "do not expect their leaders to drop everything else to beat their breasts over past errors and crimes."

It would be easy to dismiss Sarkozy's stance as simple pandering to the nationalist voters whom he so effectively wooed from Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front during the recent election. Goldhammer, however, argues that Sarkozy is actually trying to stake out a consistent, principled position on a difficult issue. Given that Sarkozy has little need to pander, given his terrifically high approval ratings, and has been reaching out to the left, rather than the right since the election, I agree with Goldhammer as to the president's motives.

I disagree with Sarkozy's position, however. Does repentance really have no place in relations between states? What about German Chancellor Willy Brandt falling to his knees at the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial in 1970? Acts such as this are actually one of the few ways that states possess to acknowledge collective responsibility for crimes without forcing innocent people to pay for the acts of their parents. Brandt's gesture was just that--a gesture--but the importance of gestures in politics can hardly be minimized. And to declare, as Sarkozy is effectively doing, that the past actions of a state impose no moral obligations on its present government, or on the citizens who take pride in belonging to it, strikes me as simply obtuse.

Obviously, no state, even postwar Germany, can let itself be entirely consumed by repentance. Sarkozy obviously fears that apologizing for French conduct in Algeria--following his predecessor Jacques Chirac's public declarations of regret for Vichy's Jewish policies--will push France down a slippery slope of contrition, leading to endless demands for reparations, and endless controversies about other crimes. In France, as in the United States, there have been insistent calls for reparations for slavery, which persisted in France's Caribbean territories until 1848. Recently, a group of right-wing French legislators proposed a law that would formally acknowledge the repression of the rebel region of the Vendée, which happened in 1793-94, as a "genocide." Many in the south of France still seethe over the slaughter of Albigensian heretics there in the Middle Ages!

But the fact that the idea of repentance is so easily abused is not cause for throwing it out. It is cause for insisting that repentance come accompanied by reasoned historical judgment....

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