Global Policy Forum

Recasting Colonialism as a Good Thing


By Julio Godoy

Inter Press Service
July 5, 2005

In a law passed on Feb. 23, the French parliament, dominated by President Jacques Chirac's right-leaning Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), demanded that teachers at schools all over the country and textbooks emphasise "the positive role (played by) France overseas, especially in the Maghreb region" in North Africa. This move sparked debate among French historians, politicians, teachers, and representatives of former colonies, especially Algeria.

At first, the Algerian government considered calling a special joint session of the two chambers of parliament to discuss the issue and formulate a response to the French claims. But President Abdelaziz Bouteflika decided against the special session. Instead, the two chambers will review the issue separately and adopt a resolution condemning "the crimes of colonisation." While this official reaction comes against a backdrop of Algerian efforts to normalise relations with the former colonial power and a plan to sign a special co-operation agreement with Paris, Algeria's response to France's attempt to rewrite history shows that the wounds provoked by colonialism in the Maghreb are still sore.

On Jun. 7, almost four months after the law was passed in Paris, the National Liberation Front (FLN), Algeria's ruling party, which evolved from the 1950s independence movement against France, released a communiqué in which it firmly condemned the French claims. The French law, the FLN stated, "glorifies colonialism and a retrograde vision of history," and tries to justify "the barbarity of colonialism by erasing the most hideous acts" committed by French forces in Algeria. The FLN statement was signed by Abdelaziz Belkhadem, minister for foreign affairs until May 1. Belkhadem is considered to be the closest advisor to Bouteflika, who is himself honorary president of the governing party.

Bachir Boumaza, who fought in the Algerian war of independence in the late 1950s and was tortured by French forces, said too that the French law defending colonialism "is morally equivalent to efforts to rewrite the historical record of the Nazi regime in Germany." Boumaza, whose book, La Gangrí¨ne ("The Gangrene"), described the torture methods employed by French colonial forces during the Algerian war, added that "praising colonialism, a system universally condemned, cannot contribute to curing the historical conflict it gave birth to." "Colonialism is, above all, the humiliation of human beings," he said. "It is sad that France is not able to put an end to its colonialist mentality."

Algeria won independence from France in 1962 after a bloody eight-year war during which the French military employed the most brutal counterinsurgency methods. At the time, only a handful of French intellectuals, including philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and historian Pierre Vidal Naquet, denounced French abuses in Algeria. Together with journalist Claude Bourdet, editor of the weekly newspaper France Observateur, Vidal Naquet publicly compared the French forces' behaviour in Algeria to that of the Nazi Gestapo secret police.

In Paris, leftist parliamentarians, such as socialist senators Bariza Khiari and Jean-Pierre Michel, have called the new efforts by the French government to revise colonialism's historical record "a crime against memory." In a joint declaration released in late June, Khiari and Michel denounced the French law as "an unacceptable, unprecedented provocation, which insults the historical facts and the victims of colonialism alike, and also historians and researchers who have condemned colonialism." Similar positions were adopted by historians and teachers. The French association of history and geography teachers dismissed the law as "a call to write an official version of history." History professor Francois Durpaire told IPS: "It's as if the government had asked mathematicians to teach that two plus two equals five."

Durpaire and other history teachers and professors in France said, however, that the new law would certainly have no impact on the way history is taught in French schools, but that it merely forms part of an effort by France to cleanse its colonial past. Historian Marc Ferro, author of "Le livre noir du colonialisme" (The Black Book of Colonialism), an uncompromising account of European colonialism, noted that France has always insisted on describing its own colonial practices as "humane," while dismissing British or Spanish colonialism as ruthless and inspired purely by the aim of economic domination. "But in practice, the differences between French and English colonialism were not as clear-cut as the official French version would like them to be," Ferro told IPS. He added that French colonialism came to an abrupt end after World War II, provoking a new national crisis after the catastrophe of France's collaboration with Nazi Germany.

Meanwhile, British rule in Africa and Asia went, with the clear exceptions of India, Kenya, and Zimbabwe, through a smooth transition from colonialism to co-operation within the Commonwealth. "We can say that if French cultural intentions were perhaps more humane than Britain's, France's political practices in the colonies were actually more restrictive and repressive, in part because colonial France wanted the indigenous peoples in the colonies to become French. Britain never thought of transforming Kenyans or Indians into Englishmen," Ferro added.

France's right-wing government is not alone in attempting to revise the colonial past. In Britain, historian Niall Ferguson has for years conveyed a revisionist view of colonialism, describing British colonial rule in Africa and Asia as "nation-building." Ferguson has said that the British empire succeeded in transforming "the institutions of failed or rogue states and lay the foundations of...rule of law, non-corrupt administration, and ultimately, representative government." Among such "failed or rogue states" Ferguson included India.

He also claimed that the British empire succeeded in giving rise to a lengthy period of "relative world peace" and a global order within which economic development was unquestionably easier. In addition, Ferguson has stated that poverty in Third World countries is not a product of colonialism or globalisation, but is rooted in the fact that those "areas of the world have no contact with globalisation. It's not globalisation that makes them poor, it's the fact that they're not involved in it."

In his latest works, especially in his book "Colossus - The rise and Fall of the American Empire", Ferguson, now a professor of history at Harvard University, has been calling on U.S. officials to aggressively assume their role as new colonial masters - as heirs to the British empire, so to speak. He has even claimed that an "imperial gene" exists - which apparently would be of Anglo-Saxon origin. These appeals have led other historians, curiously mainly in France, to dismiss Ferguson as a 21st century historian thinking in 19th century terms. Says Pierre Grosser, professor of history at the French Institute of Political Studies in Paris: "It is astonishing seeing Ferguson arguing in favour of U.S.-led colonialism and imperialism based on the so-called lessons drawn from the experience of the British empire."

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