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Untangling Emotional History: How President Sarkozy’s Failed Memory Initiative Illuminates France’s Continuing Struggle with the Holocaust

In 2011, Humanity in Action published its first book, Reflections on the Holocaust. The essays collected in this volume were written by Humanity in Action Fellows, Senior Fellows, board members and lecturers who participated in Humanity in Action's educational programs from 1997 to 2010. 


On February 13, 2008 French President Nicolas Sarkozy planned to make history. Twice. By choosing to accept a long-standing invitation to the annual dinner of the Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France (CRIF), President Sarkozy became the first leader of the Fifth Republic to attend this event. His predecessors, including Presidents Jacques Chirac and Francois Mitterand, had declined the invitation while in office. To them, participating in a religious fundraiser by elected officials constituted a breach of the secularism demanded by the government. Sarkozy, a president infinitely more vociferous about religion than his forerunners, saw no conflict of interest and alluded to such objections in his speech before the CRIF. Referring to his recent dialogue with the Pope in Rome (for which he received a barrage of domestic criticism), Sarkozy queried,“Should it oblige the President of the Republic, if he is to be republican, to talk only about road safety, purchasing power, and planning without ever mentioning what could be seen as basics such as life, civilization, love and hope? Have we become so sectarian and blind as to ban these fundamental questions from the political arena?” (1) Such rhetoric clearly endeavored to justify his attendance at the dinner while simultaneously highlighting his ongoing struggle to balance religiosity and republicanism in office.

Accepting the CRIF’s invitation, however, was not the only way Sarkozy made headlines. At the end of a lengthy speech that addressed issues including secularism, Israeli-Palestinian relations, the 2001 Durban Conference, and a host of other issues central to the French Jewish community, Sarkozy turned to Holocaust education. Branding this curriculum as the “strongest weapon against racism and anti-Semitism and the only protection against a repeat of those events,” the President insisted that only by inculcating a total rejection of intolerance in the youngest students would France begin to combat hatred. For this reason, he announced, “I have asked the government, in particular the Minister of Education, Xavier Darcos, to see to it that every year, starting at the beginning of the 2008-2009 school year, every ten-year-old schoolchild is entrusted with the memory of one of the 11,000 French child victims of the Holocaust.” (2)

President Sarkozy’s speech was greeted with a standing ovation. Observers from the dinner noted that all but one stood to applaud Sarkozy’s support for the Jewish people, the state of Israel and his continuing commitment to Holocaust education. But that one abstention was as significant as the roomful of supporters, for it signaled the silent objection of an Auschwitz survivor, former President of the European Parliament and former Minister of Health, Simone Veil. Interviewed in the aftermath of this declaration on the website of the French magazine L’Express, Ms. Veil explained that upon hearing Sarkozy’s words, “her blood turned to ice.” (3) She continued, “It is unimaginable, unbearable, tragic and above all unjust. You cannot inflict this on little ones of ten years old! You cannot ask a child to identify with a dead child. The weight of this memory is too heavy to bear.” Veil, the Chairwoman of honor at the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah and the de facto leader of the French survivor community, was not alone in condemning Sarkozy. Despite the overwhelming commendation Sarkozy received at the dinner, polls indicated that eighty percent of French citizens opposed the initiative.

A Question of Trauma

A large community of psychologists condemned the program, agreeing with Veil that the memory of a dead child could have traumatic consequences. Dr. Martine Reinecke, a psychologist who specializes in death and terminal illness, elaborates on the detrimental implications of this program: 

“You can’t impose the memory of another child on a child. It’s totally impossible. Why? First, it’s a sad story. You can imagine for a child how they can feel sorry and full emotion and compassion and at the same time they can imagine it’s possible again. If it belongs to the past it can exist in the present or even their future. They have this story and they can identify themselves to this child. They can imagine plenty of things like why someone hasn’t reacted enough and why people stayed silent. And we haven’t enough answers to make them feel secure enough in the present. When you read a good book with any hero you identify yourself to this person and that’s a process of growing. But if in this story the hero dies, it is difficult to build something else, like how the story follows. This is the risky part. When the protagonist dies, in this case the deported child, it can stop the living child’s own process of growing. This is the most difficult. How can you explain to the child that they can grow and be different and everything will be all right while they have this story paralleling their own life? In their own psychic growth, it is not suitable for them.” (4)

Dr. Reinecke’s hesitation, though expressed from a personal standpoint, is an objection shared by many in her field. Psychologists are not alone in their beliefs that a ten-year old is simply too young to deal with genocide at such a personal and intense level. In the late 1970s and early 1980s many teachers realized that the Nazi genocide of the Jews was not being adequately addressed in the classrooms of young students. Dr. Chaim Schatzker, a professor of Education at Hebrew University, explained in his 1980 article, “The Teaching of the Holocaust: Dilemmas and Considerations,” that “Careful attention should be paid to the proper age of the students and to those contents with which he can be confronted without causing harm and without leading to a total rejection of the entire subject. The problem is how to present the truth without causing dangerous mental consequences – how to impress without traumatizing.” Schatzker understood that the Holocaust, due to its violence and proximity in time and space, required much greater sensitivity than topics like the Crusades or the Spanish Inqui- sition. For this reason certain elements of the tragedy would need to be censored for the youngest learners. To contemporary psychologists, Sarkozy’s initiative was an uncensored curriculum that could devastate the most vulnerable students. In addition, the teaching community voiced objections in unison.

No Education Mandate

The education sector also expressed outrage at Sarkozy’s usurpation of control over the history curriculum. Marie-Cécile Maday, a history teacher at the Collège la Grange aux Belles in Paris explains, “National Education says that the freedom of the teacher is the most important point. Of course there is a national curriculum but the teacher is absolutely free to choose how to transmit the program. This license of teachers in the classroom is of prime importance in the education system in France.” (5) Since 2002, fifth graders have studied the Holocaust as a crime against humanity. Teachers were offended by Sarkozy’s declaration, for neither the Ministry of Education nor a panel of teachers had been consulted beforehand. Véronique Brisson, a fifth- grade teacher at École Jeanne d’Arc Notre Dame de Chatou, echoed Maday’s opinion saying, “Each teacher organizes her class with liberty, and she is required to ensure that the basic lessons are learned.

All the teachers in the schools work together to make programs and the pupils don’t have to do the same thing in every class. The teachers must agree on what to do.” (6)

Teachers felt that the President violated this sacrosanct notion of jurisdiction in the classroom and objected to the impulsive nature of the announcement.

The Ministry of Education produces a document called the Common Base of Knowledge and Skills, which determines the overall curriculum for mandatory education (ages 6–16). The program for each grade is established by a group of experts, presided over by a university professor or an inspector, all appointed by the Minister of Education. This group consults with teachers, parents and students before submitting the curriculum to the High Council of Education, which, along with the Minister, decides on its implementation. It is clear from the language of the declaration (“I have asked the government”) and the manner in which it was publicized that Sarkozy circumvented the Ministry’s standard protocol for education reform. A genuine proposition for long-term change in the history program would require consultation with a number of parties, none of which had been approached by the President.

Though Minister Darcos established a task force to consider implementing the memory program, the committee announced on June 19, just four months after Sarkozy’s speech, that classrooms would not study individual identities, but would learn about children as a collective. In considering the short life of this idea and the nature of its proposal, one wonders what Sarkozy truly intended. If the Holocaust curriculum was not his real target, what was Sarkozy’s objective?

Historical Sensitivity vs. Political Strategy

Though theories about Sarkozy’s motives abound, the French public comes to one striking consensus: Sarkozy has a strong tendency to manipulate emotionally sensitive topics in order to advance his political agenda. Director of the European Humanity in Action Center in Europe and former teacher Anne-Lorraine Bujon questions Sarkozy’s motives: “In a way he’s pushing and pulling the French public by telling them things they’re not used to hearing. Which side is he on? It’s concerted political tactics. He’s using gaps and identity anxieties to further his political agenda.” (7) To illustrate this idea, Bujon referenced another similar history initiative, which Sarkozy implemented on his first day in office. Just hours after his inauguration on May 16, 2007, Sarkozy attempted to require that all high school students read a letter written by Guy Môquet, a 17-year old French ‘résistant’ (freedom fighter). Historians assert that Môquet was a pacifist, not an active freedom fighter, who was murdered by the Nazis in a reprisal for the death of a German soldier in a communist ambush. In the farewell letter to his parents and brother, Môquet expresses hope that he would die with courage and that his murder would serve a purpose.

Sarkozy sees Môquet as a figure of national heroism to which French youth should aspire and demanded his last words be read each year on the anniversary of his death (October 22). Surveys indicate that 30% of teachers read the letter aloud in their classrooms. Some teachers, like Maday, objected to Sarkozy’s infringement on their teaching authority as they did with the memory program, and pointed to other problematic aspects of the initiative. Since World War II is taught in the spring, the letter would be introduced completely out of context for most students (during lessons about World War I or the USSR). Compared to the memory program, however, Guy Môquet’s letter received less criticism and even found support. Some teachers compared the letter to the Diary of Anne Frank, explaining that such historical objects speak to the complexities of World War II and have a framework. Unlike memory, which is subjective, these documents invite objective analysis and consideration and can be appropriate for high school students. The statistics do speak loudly, however, and the fact that a majority of the educational community has opposed his initiatives remains significant.

In referencing Guy Môquet, Bujon, Maday and others demonstrate how Sarkozy has repeatedly used World War II, especially the death of children and teenagers, in order to stir public conscience. These teachers find Sarkozy’s tactic both reprehensible and manipulative, as the Holocaust in France is such a delicate and emotionally charged topic. Whether Sarkozy seeks to inspire patriotism among his youngest constituents, to strengthen his image as a “sensitive” leader or to ingratiate himself with a powerful Jewish community (a belief held widely about his CRIF speech), many believe that the President’s approach borders on reckless when it comes to World War II history.

Citation The Role of Memory in a History Curriculum

Dr. Reinecke, Bujon and various history teachers agree that Sarkozy is trying to position himself in a contemporary context vis-à-vis the Second World War and that he uses this history to“solve his personal puzzle.” But Sarkozy’s frequent placement of this history in his arsenal of political weaponry begs the question: What is the purpose of World War II and Holocaust education in the classroom?

Based on the first two initiatives introduced by Sarkozy (perhaps there are more to come), World War II and the Holocaust are located on a delicate continuum between history and memory that is still being explored. Educators have not yet arrived at a consensus about whether these two ideas are inextricable linked to one another or not. Reading Guy Môquet’s letter does more than provide pupils with Sarkozy’s template for admirable patriotism; it allows them to fulfill the last wish of this martyr by giving meaning to his death. Each time a student recites the words, “What I want with all my heart is that my death serves some purpose,” (8) and then proceeds to learn about the historic context in which those words were last uttered, he does more than learn, he memorializes. This mix of history and memory poses a real difficulty for teachers who want to separate the facts from the emotions. Maday explains, “History is not memory. It is analysis in order to understand the mechanisms that lead to events. Memory is a collection of feelings and emotions and things that have been lived. It is far from reason. History is far more than memory and above all it is non-compassionate analysis, while memory is compassionate by nature.” (9) Maday believes that Sarkozy appeals more to passion than to reason. The memory program introduced at the CRIF dinner highlights this issue. Pairing a child with a deported victim draws no distinction between the emotions of memory and the stoicism of history. As Dr. Reinecke explained, for a young child to internalize such a dark moment leaves no room for growth or analysis. The death of the “hero” is so powerful that the memorializing ultimately overwhelms the historicizing. Herein lies the continuing debate in French Holocaust education – where does history end and memorializing begin?

In 1995, when President Chirac officially acknowledged French collaboration with the Nazis in deporting Jews to their deaths, he opened the door for drastic changes in the French history curriculum. One might imagine how the Holocaust would be taught differently once a nation transforms from victim and bystander to perpetrator. In France, however, no such official changes were made in response to this declaration. The history curriculum was updated in 2002 to include Holocaust education in the program for ten-year olds, but the teacher continues to retain complete authority over which content she uses and how. Anne du Monteil, the mother of a ten- year-old child in the French school system, explains, “Teachers are very special in France. Those who decide to teach enter the profession so that they can do whatever they want. They have complete control.” (10) Du Monteil mentioned that her ten-year old daughter, Toscán, has not visited Le Mont Valérien resistance memorial while her neighbor’s child has. Thus, while some teachers choose to incorporate letters, videos and memorials in their curricula, and perhaps even address France’s account- ability, others may decide to limit their discussions to history textbooks that rely on candid statistics.

Ultimately, the structure of the French education system seems to prevent a national consensus on how best to distinguish between memory and history. Because the classroom is such a sensitive domain for educators, students will have vastly different experiences depending on their school or teacher. How history and memory are taught will therefore depend upon the way that the institution (in the case of Véronique Brisson’s school) or the educator (in the case of Marie-Cécile Maday’s school) interprets the purpose of memory in the curriculum. History is a national requirement according to the Ministry of Education; memory, however, is not. When asked about the function of taught memory in the curriculum, university student Alix Zuinghedau responded:

“The most important thing is not to commemorate for the sake of commemorating. You always have to ask yourself, ‘Why am I commemorating?’ Otherwise you sacralize the topic and you only commemorate in order to replicate an action. Though commemorating can be very dangerous, it is also necessary. For this reason we must find the proper equilibrium between experts who research and teachers who disseminate information.” (11)

Choosing whether or not to memorialize the Holocaust is a personal choice for teachers, and Zuinghedau underscores the variety of approaches chosen by educators. Though French educators collectively recognize the importance of World War II and the Holocaust in history, many have other priorities when it comes to commemoration. French teachers, parents and students from a variety of backgrounds have expressed disappointment with the lack of diversity in genocide education. They ask why the Algerian War, and the Rwandan and Armenian genocides receive no attention, while the Holocaust is taught three times at ages 10, 15 and 17. The complexity of memorializing in the school is augmented by its emotional, and thus personal nature.

Sarkozy’s memory initiative struck more than one sensitive nerve in the public. Preliminary analysis demonstrated that this hasty initiative was threatening to teachers who consider their classrooms as sacred territory and to psychologists who worry about the traumatic potential of the Holocaust on young children. For the nation as a whole, however, this initiative served as a subtle, yet inescapable reminder that France has yet to come to terms with its own role in the Holocaust. There is no better testimony to a country’s perception of history than the curriculum it impresses upon its most malleable minds. The continuing disparity in the French Holocaust program is evidence of a country that remains divided on the issue of just how much of its history it chooses to remember.


•     •     • 


Jotanovic, Vera and Juliana Schnur. "Untangling Emotional History: How President Sarkozy’s Failed Memory Initiative Illuminates France’s Continuing Struggle with the Holocaust." In Reflections on the Holocaustedited by Julia Zarankin, 80-93. New York: Humanity in Action, Inc. and authors, 2011.


1. Speech by Nicolas Sarkozy at Annual CRIF Dinner. <http://www.ambafrance- uk.org/President-Sarkozy-s-speech-to. html?var_recherche=sarkozy%27s%20 speech%20at%20crif>.

2. Speech by Nicolas Sarkozy at Annual CRIF Dinner. <http://www. ambafrance-uk.org/President- Sarkozy-s-speech- to.html?var_ recherche=sarkozy%27s%20 speech%20at%20crif>.

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