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The February 23, 2005, French law on colonialism was an act passed by the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) conservative majority, which imposed on high-school (lycée) teachers to teach the "positive values" of colonialism to their students (article 4). The law created a public uproar and opposition from the whole of the left-wing, and was finally repealed by president Jacques Chirac (UMP) at the beginning of 2006, after accusations of historical revisionism from various teachers and historians, including Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Claude Liauzu, Olivier LeCour Grandmaison and Benjamin Stora. Its article 13 was also criticized as it supported former Organisation armée secrète militants.

Article 4 on the "positive role of the French presence abroad"

The controversed article 4 asked teachers and textbooks to "acknowledge and recognize in particular the positive role of the French presence abroad, especially in North Africa". This was considered by the left-wing and in the former colonies as a denial of the racist crimes of colonialism, and had national and international consequences until its repeal at the start of 2006. Hence, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, president of Algeriamarker, refused to sign the envisioned "friendly treaty" with France because of this law. On June 26, 2005, he declared that the law "...approached mental blindness, negationism and revisionism." Famous writer Aimé Césaire, leader of the Négritude anti-colonialist literary movement, also refused to meet then-UMP leader (and winner of the 2007 presidential election) Nicolas Sarkozy, who then cancelled his visit to the overseas department of Martiniquemarker, where a thousand persons demonstrated against him in Fort-de-Francemarker.

UMP deputy Christian Vanneste was criticized for having introduced the expression "positive values" in the text. On April 25, 2005, more than a thousand professors and thesis students had signed the petition "Colonisation: No to the teaching of an official history". MP Christiane Taubira called the law "disastrous" and enacted because of lobbying from the harkis and the pied-noirs, remaining silent on the Indigenate Code or forced labour in the former colonies.

Partial repeal

Supporters of the law were decried as a resurgence of the "colonial lobby", a term used in late 19th century France to label those people (deputies, scientifics, businessmen, etc.) who supported French colonialism. In defiance of this revisionism, Chirac finally turned against his own UMP majority that had voted for the law, and declared that "In a Republic, there is no official history. It is not to the law to write history. Writing history is the business of historians." He then passed a decree charging the president of the Assembly, Jean-Louis Debré (UMP), with modifying the controversial law, taking out the revisionist article about the "recognition of the positive role of the French presence abroad". In order to do so, Chirac ordered Prime minister Dominique de Villepin to seize the Constitutional Council, whose decision would permit the legal repeal of the law. The Constitutional Council judged that history textbooks regulation is not the domain of the law, but of administrative regulation. As such, the contested amendment was repealed in the beginning of 2006.

History and the law

In a tribune Liberty for history, 19 historians (including Elisabeth Badinter, Alain Decaux and Marc Ferro) demanded the repeal of all "historic laws": not only the February 23, 2005 Act, but also the 1990 Gayssot Act against "racism, xenophobia and historical revisionism", the Taubira Act on the recognition of slavery as a "crime against humanity" and the law recognizing the Armenian genocide. This call was controversial among historians. Many supported non-intervention of the state on historical matters, but few went as far as asking for the repeal of previously existing acts. Some were against the Gayssot Act and other laws, but thought repealing them would send the wrong message.

Un passé qui ne passe pas (An everpresent past)

see also French rule in Algeria: Post colonial relations

The debate on the February 23, 2005, law was linked to a further debate in France concerning colonialism, which itself is linked to the debate on immigration. As the historian Benjamin Stora pointed out, colonialism has a major "memory" stake in influencing the way various communities and the nation itself represent themselves. Official state history always had a hard time accepting the existence of past crimes and errors. Indeed, the Algerian war of independence (1954-1962), previously qualified as a "public order operation," was only recognized as a "war" by the French National Assembly in 1999.
In the same sense, philosopher Paul Ricœur (1981) has underlined the need for a "decolonization of memory", because mentalities themselves have been colonized during the "Age of imperialism."


  1. LOI n° 2005-158 du 23 février 2005 portant reconnaissance de la Nation et contribution nationale en faveur des Français rapatriés
  2. "History should not be written by law" says Jacques Chirac (Ce n'est pas à la loi d'écrire l'histoire), quoted by RFI, December 11, 2005: [1]

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