WARSAW — In France, May 10 is a day to commemorate the abolition of slavery. Jan. 27 is the day we remember the Holocaust, through the commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz.
In a few days, there will be ceremonies to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the revision of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus’ conviction on charges of espionage in a trial that tore the country apart.
France in particular, but also Europe in general, seems to be in a mood for remembering and repenting. It all looks as if the need to integrate communities within nations, to reconcile them with their past in order to unite them around a common identity and therefore a common project for the future, has replaced Europe’s now-completed mission of reconciling old enemies like Germany and France.
For decades, “reconciliation” and its most remarkable achievement — Franco-German rapprochement — was the trademark of the project to create an ever closer union in Europe. Reconciliation may seem far off for, say, the peoples of Japan, China and South Korea, but it is taken for granted by today’s Europeans.
Except for the Balkans, most European nations are at peace with each other. The genes of war now express themselves on the soccer field; competition for land has been replaced by competition for medals and titles.
The first Franco-German history book was released recently, and according to its team of writers, it was not the past and the Nazi years that constitute a source of contention between French and German historians, but the present and, in particular, the countries’ relations with the United States.
So, if the mission of reconciliation has any life left, its focus has shifted. If European nation-states are reconciled with each other, they are not yet fully reconciled with themselves, with their dark or gray spots, and in particular their treatment of minorities.
Historians of Europe will probably one day conclude that it is the Holocaust and Europe’s relations with its Jews that paved the way for the opening of this process of repentance.
In the words of the Polish historian and statesman Bronislaw Geremek, the liberation of Auschwitz on Jan. 27, 1945, has to be seen as one of the founding moments of today’s Europe. The silence that surrounded Holocaust survivors during the immediate postwar reconstruction of Europe has been replaced by gestures of contrition and reparation.
Responsibility for passivity as well as active crimes has been recognized. Pious lies have been uncovered. In France half a century ago, as the Cold War loomed, Charles de Gaulle easily convinced the French that they were heroic during World War II because he was heroic. Francois Mitterrand, by contrast, managed to assure the French only that they were not so bad, because he, Mitterrand, had served in the collaborationist Vichy regime of Marshal Petain before joining the resistance.
In the eyes of historians, President Jacques Chirac’s redeeming value will most probably remain his courageous attempt to reconcile France’s wounded minorities with their past and the French nation through a national process of repentance. It started with the Jews and acknowledgement that the Vichy regime did indeed incarnate the French state. Thus “France” itself was an accomplice to the crimes of the Nazi regime.
Today, France’s black minority is trying to organize itself along the lines of the Jewish minority. It has created a central authority serving as an umbrella for diverse organizations. And it has concluded that centuries of slavery amount to the equivalent of the Holocaust. European recognition of crimes against the Jews, they argue, must be followed by an admission of guilt toward the Continent’s black minorities.
It is likely that the violence that erupted in the fall of 2005 in many French cities and suburbs, in which young and unemployed black people played a large part, has accelerated the willingness of French officials to come to terms with this historical legacy. To face the challenge of integration, France must face its past. But it must also behave in a modern, rather than a neocolonial, way in many places in its former African empire.
If reconciliation with the past is vital to building a harmonious future, France has much to do concerning another minority for whom history seems to remain largely frozen. It is with the French of Algerian descent, not to mention Algeria itself, that reconciliation seems most difficult to achieve. It will take more than a few role models, such as Zinedine Zidane, France’s greatest soccer star, to appease the frustrations and to curb the resentments.
But is acknowledging past guilt only a way to facilitate the integration of minorities? Or is it also part of a process of closing the doors of our European “paradise” to all those who still want to join us? Reconciliation between nations is probably easier than reconciliation within nations. This is the challenge facing much of the democratic world today, not only in France and Europe at large, but also in the U.S.
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