Sarkozy is criticized for Holocaust memorial plan
By Elaine Sciolino, Friday, February 15, 2008, IHT
PARIS: President Nicolas Sarkozy dropped the intellectual bombshell at the end of a dinner speech to representatives of France’s Jewish community: Beginning next autumn, every French 10-year-old will have to learn the life story of one of the 11,000 French children killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust.
“Nothing is more moving, for a child, than the story of a child his own age, who has the same games, the same joys and the same hopes as he, but who, at the dawn of the 1940s, had the bad fortune to be defined as a Jew,” Sarkozy said in the speech Wednesday night. He added that every French child should be “entrusted with the memory of a French child-victim of the Holocaust.”
Sarkozy wrapped his plan in the cloak of religion, blaming the wars and violence of the last century on an “absence of God” and calling the Nazi belief in a hierarchy of races “radically incompatible with Judeo-Christian monotheism.”
Education Minister Xavier Darcos explained later that the aim of the plan was to “create an identification between a child of today and one of the same age who was deported and gassed.”
The announcement, which comes as Sarkozy is already under fire for his frequent praise of God and religion, has touched off an even fiercer wave of protest.
Some psychiatrists and educators predict that requiring students to identify with a Holocaust victim will traumatize them and unfairly burden them with the guilt of their forefathers. Secularists accuse Sarkozy of subverting both France’s iron-clad separation of church and state and the republican ideal of a single, nonreligious identity for all.
Political opponents dismiss the plan as only his latest misguided idea unveiled without reflection or consultation. Some historians call the move a manipulation of the past that could distort France’s history of collaboration with the Nazis and lead to an escalation of personal remembrances of victims of other horrors of history.
“Every day the president throws out a new unhappy idea with no coherence,” said Pascal Bruckner, a philosopher. “But this last one is truly obscene, the very opposite of spirituality. Let’s judge it for what it is: a crazy proposal of the president, not the word of the Gospel.”
The initiative has also pitted Jew against Jew.
“It is unimaginable, unbearable, dramatic and, above all, unjust,” Simone Veil, honorary president of the Foundation for the Memory of the Holocaust and a Holocaust survivor, said on the Web site of the magazine L’Express. “You cannot inflict this on little 10-year-olds! You cannot ask a child to identify with a dead child. This history is much too heavy to carry.”
Veil was in the audience when Sarkozy spoke, and said that when she heard his words, “My blood turned to ice.”
But Serge Klarsfeld, the Jewish historian who has devoted his life to recording the names and biographies of France’s Holocaust victims, praised the president for his “courage.”
“This is the crowning glory of long and arduous work,” he said. “To those who say it’s too difficult for young children – that’s not true. What they see on television or in a horror film is much worse. This is not a morbid mission.”
On one level, the plan is a logical extension of Sarkozy’s sometimes sentimental and pedagogical approach to governing. Last year, he enraged politicians on the left, the biggest high school teachers’ union and some historians and teachers when he ordered all high schools in France to read a handwritten letter by a 17-year-old student who knew he was going to be executed by the Nazis for his resistance activities.
On another level, it reflects his repeated declarations that as president he is also a “friend,” as he calls himself, of Israel. By extension, he is also a friend of France’s Jews. He is the first French president to address the annual dinner of France’s Jewish community.But there is something else. The plan comes as Sarkozy is trying to shatter another taboo in French intellectual life: religion. In a way, it reflects his deeply held, if iconoclastic, belief that religious values have an important place in everyday French society.
When Sarkozy was made an Honorary Canon of the Basilica of Saint John of Lateran in Rome last December, he proposed a “positive secularism” that “does not consider religions a danger, but an asset.” He was even more provocative in declaring that “the schoolteacher will never be able to replace the priest or the pastor” in teaching the difference between good and evil.
In Saudi Arabia last month, he infused his speech with more than a dozen references to God, who, he said, “liberates” man. He also declared last month that it was a mistake to delete the reference to “Europe’s Christian roots” from the European Constitution.”
In France, where religion is regarded as a private matter, Sarkozy vaunts his religious identity, referring publicly to his Jewish grandfather and wearing his Catholicity on his sleeve.
“I am of Catholic culture, Catholic tradition, Catholic belief, even if my religious practice is episodic,” he wrote in a book of essays in 2004. “I consider myself a member of the Catholic Church.”
But Sarkozy’s personal conduct seems to contradict his declaration of Catholic spirituality. Twice divorced, three times married (despite adherence to a religion that still abhors divorce), he has so alienated the country that an OpinionWay poll published Friday concluded that an overwhelming 82 percent of the French disapprove of his behavior.
That level of disapproval seems to have made Sarkozy vulnerable in whatever he does these days, including his Holocaust initiative.
Teachers defended the current approach to the Holocaust in French schools. Since 2002, 10-year-olds have studied the Nazi extermination of the Jews as a crime against humanity.
Older children watch films on the Holocaust, visit Holocaust museums and memorials and take field trips to concentration camps. Schools where students were taken away for deportation hang plaques in their memory.
“The Holocaust has to be put in the context of the rise of the Nazis and the war, not just emotion and dramatic spectacle,” said Gilles Moindrot, secretary general of the largest primary school teachers’ union. “If you do this with the memory of individual Jews, you’d have to do it with the victims of slavery or the wars of religion.”
Some of Sarkozy’s other political foes accuse him of trying to put his personal stamp everywhere.
“One day he is giving us sermons about God,” Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a Socialist senator, said on LCI television on Friday, adding, “Now he has suddenly turned himself into a teacher.”
Other analysts blamed the confessional approach of the United States for infecting Sarkozy’s thinking.
“Listen, it’s in the air of the times,” Regis Debray, a philosopher and author, said Friday on France Inter radio. “There is a religious sentimentality, a pretty vague religiousness, let’s say, in the world of show business, in the world of business, that comes from America. It’s the neoconservative wave of the born-agains.”
The anti-racism group MRAP accused Sarkozy of chauvinism by singling out French victims of the Holocaust for study and excluding other targeted groups like the gypsies.
Sarkozy’s advisers acknowledged that he came up with his Holocaust plan for schoolchildren without any formal consultation. In the face of all the criticism, however, Sarkozy vowed to proceed with it.
“It is ignorance – not knowledge – that leads to the repetition of abominable situations,” he said during a visit to Perigueux in central France on Friday, adding, “You do not traumatize children by giving them the gift of the memory of a country.”