The issue at the centre of the dispute is an amendment to a much wider law that simply aims to improve the living conditions of French civilians repatriated at the end of the Algerian war in 1962.
The amendment asks that school programmes recognise the positive role of France's presence overseas, notably in north Africa. The minor clause was attached to the main bill on the private initiative of one lawmaker and adopted by parliament without debate or fanfare last February.
Nine months later, TV and radio talk of little else, and the once anonymous amendment has created a national fracas. French historian Pierre Blanche says it has provoked a debate that the country has avoided for 40 years.
"We're like the Japanese, we're the last nation who is scared of their colonial past. In Japan it took 22 million Chinese signing a petition to wake them up, and in France it took some parliamentarians sneaking this amendment through on a Friday afternoon to start the debate."
Roads, infrastructure, health and education systems
Left-wing politicians and rights groups say the bill is an attempt to gloss over the country's colonial past at the expense of blacks and Arabs, while right-wing statesmen claim France has nothing to be ashamed of in a colonial legacy that left roads, infrastructure, and health and education systems, not to mention the French language.
But negative coverage in the media has continued nonetheless, and last week, Interior minister Nicholas Sarkozy had to cancel a trip to the overseas French territories and former colonies of Martinique and Guadeloupe because of the threat of angry protests. Plus, a prominent Martinican writer had refused to meet with him.
Many in the government have moved to distance themselves from the amendment. Although he has stopped short of calling for the article to be repealed, prime minister Dominique de Villepin said it was certainly not up to lawmakers to write history.
"For those who were thrown in the belly of galleons and taken across the Atlantic to work in the plantations, these are memories that are still alive and you see them in Martinique and Guadeloupe and all that still evokes pain", he said.
Political class stirred
Even President Chirac has gone on national television to try to calm tensions. He said there was no official version of French history and called history the key to a country's cohesion. He then promptly announced the formation of a committee to evaluate the actions of parliament in the field of history and report back within three months.
Africa Gora is an organization that helps minorities find their place in mainstream French society. President Dogad Dogoui holds a seminar for black professionals who want to work on their resumes and interviewing skills. Dogoui says the gaffe shows that once again many lawmakers do not consider immigrants a true part of French society.
"Many decision makers refuse to see that France today is an increasingly mixed and coloured society. We have to have a shared version of history and to build this country for future generations."
With efforts to revoke the controversial amendment blocked by conservative lawmakers in parliament, the government is looking at passing a decree to allow it to overrule the clause without actually having to revoke it. But until the issue is resolved, citizens can be assured that there will be no shortage of debate on the legacy of France's colonial past.
© DEUTSCHE WELLE/DW-WORLD.DE 2005
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