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National Memory

“Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter” - African proverb

National memory is a key component of a state’s collective identity. Various interpretations of state histories allow citizens to publicly recollect, and in turn, shape the way that they understand one another in cultural, social, and political contexts. We have noted that the pedagogical interpretation of French history found in the state’s national curriculum has failed to include accurate depictions of the experiences of many immigrant groups and minorities. This neglect has serious ramifications, including the abundant creation of myths and misleading representations concerning a large portion of the French people. Paradoxically, the nation prioritizes Republican values of “equality, liberty, and fraternity,” yet under-emphasizes its colonial history. A potential consequence of this omission is the elimination of an accurate colonial history from the French consciousness.

Through the development of a unified national curriculum, the state has sanctioned a particular version of French history that is largely accepted as truth. Once a popular narrative has been established and then accepted, it becomes extremely difficult to alter. Stories that confirm the dominant narrative are celebrated, while conflicting stories are dismissed as exceptions or exaggeration. Favoring one narrative over another frequently has the effect of negating minority histories, and causes entire populations to be excluded from the process of identity-formation of the state. This hegemonic revision of history also affects how citizens and the state alike relate to diverse populations. When we prioritize one group’s story over another, we create a historical hierarchy which, in turn, leads to social stratification and exclusion. We have observed that the national curriculum, as it currently stands, does not sufficiently address the intricacies of France’s colonial legacy. We find it imperative that the curriculum mandated by the state be representative of the population as a whole.

Policy Analysis

The significance of national memory and its role in maintaining social peace can be demonstrated qualitatively. In particular, we ground our thesis in our own personal experiences. Too often, we have been told that our French peers are not truly French because they possess African ancestry. This sentiment is inseparably linked to the formation of a Franco-French national identity that negates the history of African immigration. Another example is: what happened to the hundreds of years of French Roma history? This same manipulation of narrative has allowed the Roma to be cast as perpetual outsiders.

The history of France has always been pluralistic, and therefore we seek to challenge and diversify what is currently accepted as its national story. France has struggled to cultivate a collective cultural mythology that acknowledges its darker history since the end of the Second World War, when it was forced to explain its role in the Shoah.  We have come to realize that this battle for commemoration and inclusion is, in fact, a complex agenda characterized by political concerns and the desire to present a unified front. However, we feel that the attempt to appear uniform should be discarded in favor of pursuing a more diverse and accurate depiction of state history.

Since World War Two, there have been a variety of government efforts to address difficult histories within the national curriculum. The Taubira law is perhaps the most notable. In 2001, French politician Christiane Taubria spearheaded a successful campaign to pass a law that required the French state to acknowledge the slave trade as a crime against humanity. Along with this declaration, the law included stipulations that public schools would designate a certain amount of time to critically analyzing and discussing the impact of slavery. We believe that this historic law could ultimately serve as a model for legislation that would require a similar curriculum focusing on colonialism.  

Unfortunately, discussions concerning representations of colonialism resurfaced in a different light during the French riots of 2005. At that time, Minister Villepin declared a Etat D’urgence (state of emergency), which had previously been utilized only twice under the fifth republic—once in the case of Algeria and the second time in regards to New Caledonia. The idea of a "memory law" emerged during debates over the controversial Article 4, which dealt with the question of how to teach French colonialism. This article stated that lycée (high school) teachers were required to inform their students of the “positive aspects of colonialism.” At the beginning of 2006, the article was partially repealed by president Jacques Chirac. 

However, the challenges of addressing colonial history extend beyond these immediate battles over making such discussions compulsory. Reflecting upon the modern colonial curriculum, historian and political scientist Patrick Weil notes that many teachers fail to devote enough time to properly explaining colonization’s complexities and nuances—even if the topic is indeed present in French history books. Mr. Weil claims that France has a “diverse relationship with colonization” and emphasizes the fact that this is not a monolithic concept. For instance, the “pied-noir,” or the French citizens of various origin who lived in French Algeria before independence, did not participate in colonization in the same way as the French governmental officials did. Weil also mentions the various forms of power relations (i.e. civil servants who dealt with administrative issues and were not necessarily involved with acts of French violence) that existed at the time. Ultimately, Weil believes that colonization is a “dividing issue” that must be understood in the context of 19th-century Europe, which was characterized by a widespread race between the various European states to colonize. 

The French government should be responsible for establishing a national curriculum that addresses all of these vantage points. At present, colonization is covered in a cursory manner. For example, in the last year of collège (middle school), students choose between several countries (including India and Algeria) and study the ir history during and after colonial rule. However, this study is only conducted through the lens of social and economic difficulties that countries have encountered after becoming independent from colonial powers; not the issue of colonization itself. Similarly, for lycée (high school), the curriculum states: “we analyze the  emancipation of dominated people, the economic and social difficulties they went through since their independence...” We see, then, that not only is discussing Algeria (a former French colony) optional during collège (middle school), but also that the curriculum neglects to explicitly analyze colonization as a structural fact.

According to Marie-Cécile Maday, a teacher who covers the second and last year of collège and the second year of lycée, some parts of the history books are too subjective and the approach to colonization oversimplified: “[w]e should teach the complexity, the mechanism and the systems.” Colonialism is not a binary moral issue with solely “positive” or “negative” outcomes. However, Maday often found this task difficult because the issues can be highly sensitive and personal. Moreover,  she believes that educators lack the classroom time to fully explore and explain such a complex history.  

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has nevertheless attempted to better integrate this history into school curricula.  UNESCO has developed a set of classroom tools to assist teachers in addressing colonization in a safe and objective manner. Such programs lead the way in improving national education on controversial topics—in particular, the French colonial legacy. Ultimately, amending the historical curriculum is not a comprehensive solution for restoring a more inclusive national narrative, but it is an important start.


Based on our review of the national curriculum, current textbooks, and interviews, we recommend the following solutions:

1.    Curriculum: Set up a commission of experts, academics, historians, teachers and sociologists to establish a more comprehensive curriculum that more accurately reflects the social reality of France. Devote more time to the study of French colonization as a structural reality that has had long-term social, political, and economic consequences. This topic should include: the motives of colonization (economic gain, competition with other European nations for national expansion, etc), in-country [domestic] effects (cultural imperialism, suppression of indigenous traditions, etc), and lingering effects (structural changes, cultural changes, immigration/ emigration).

2.     Compulsory Teaching: The curriculum relating to colonization should become part of the core national curriculum and teaching it should be compulsory.. The state must devote time to training teachers in this area during their apprenticeship, to ensure that students will have access to this information.

3.    Alternative modes of teaching: We advocate additional training to help teachers cover sensitive topics. This will also give the teachers increased creative latitude in deciding how to best teach colonization. For example, some teachers may use theatrical productions or mixed media to explain colonial histories. We recommend that initiatives similar to UNESCO’s pedagogical tools be developed and produced (i.e. DVD with games and quizzes).

4.    Fund non-partisan organizations and historians. The responsibility falls on the state to ensure that the official history is objective and impartial. To accomplish this, it should fund non-partisan historians and archivists, rather than relying on legislation or members of parliament to write history or dictate what should be written in history books. Citizens should be given the opportunity to form their own judgments about history, which cannot happen if certain parts of it are neglected and eliminated.



Le Cour Grandmaison Olivier, « Passé colonial, histoire et "guerre des mémoires » , Multitudes. 2006/3 no 26, p. 143-154. DOI : 10.3917/mult.026.0143


Interview with Leyla Arslan, Paris, 6/24/11

Interview with Patrick Weil, Paris, 6/25/06

Interview with M.C Maday, 6/23/11, Humanity in Action office


Ministry of National Education. Curriculum of last year of middle school. Bulletin official spécial n°6 du 28 août 2008.

Ministry of National Education, Last year of high school (economics), Bulletin officiel N°7 du 3 October 2002 (hors-série)

French law n°2005-158 of February 23, 2005, article 4, paragraph 2.

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