Yves Ternon: French historian says removing anti-revisionist laws is arrogant
French historian and genocide specialist Yves Ternon tells the European Jewish Press why over 400 historians are demanding the removal of anti-revisionist laws.
EJP: Over 400 historians have signed a petition demanding the removal of four “historical laws”. One of these texts, voted on February 2005, includes a controversial article on the “positive aspect of colonialism”, but the other three prohibit genocide denial and discrimination. Why would historians want these anti-revisionist laws to disappear?
Yves Ternon (YT): They are putting together three essential laws and a fourth one which is completely incoherent. I think their initiative is wrong and that’s why I’ve signed a second petition denouncing it. Before I explain their motives let’s go over the laws we’re talking about.
The most recent law of the three is the Taubira law* on slavery. It asks school teachers to mention the slave trade in their programmes. However, the law only asks them to teach about slavery after the 15th century, even though it existed before that period. I think this limitation in time is neither justified nor normal. There shouldn’t be a distinction in periods. All of the slavery phenomenon ought to be studied.
The second law concerns the Armenian genocide. It simply says that France recognises the genocide. The law involves no sanctions against revisionists.
Finally, the Gayssot law prohibits discrimination and revisionism. It can lead to sanctions. Genocide denial can also be penalised by a prior legislation, article 1882 from the Penal code, which sanctions those who offend victims.
All three laws are essential. There is no reason to examine their removal.
The fourth law, from February 2005, is very different. It asks teachers to talk about the “positive aspect” of colonialism. I think this law makes no sense and is incoherent. It does not justify the removal of the three other laws.
EJP: Why do you think these respected historians made their request?
YT: They consider that only they are entitled to give their opinion on history. There is arrogance on the behalf of university professors who consider they belong to a different cast and that politicians and legislators can’t express themselves on these matters. They claim that these laws are interfering with their research, but that’s wrong. No historian has ever been penalised by these three laws. No historian has ever been threatened in his research work.
Some historians are just settling scores with legislators who dared to intervene in the past on historic issues. They have been marked by the Bernard Lewis affair.
Mr. Lewis was condemned by a civil court because he denied the murder of Armenians was a genocide. The penal code article that sanctions those who offend victims made it possible to condemn him.
EJP: If prior laws enable to penalise revisionists, what is the use of the three laws that you are defending?
YT: They are useful and have a great significance for various communities. The Gayssot law against revisionism and racist acts was voted in 1990 after the Jewish cemetery of Carpentras was vandalised. The law made it easier to penalise the perpetrators of racist acts and revisionists.
The law recognising the Armenian genocide is a part of a wider initiative launched by the Armenian community across the world. Its aim is to fight Turkish revisionism. The Taubira law was essential for the Caribbean community who insisted on the importance of teaching about slavery in school…
EJP: This protest is getting public attention, but is it really an important movement?
YT: Yes, this movement is very significant among historians. The 19 historians who launched the petition represent hundreds of others. But others disagree. The second petition which denounces the first was approved by historians who specialise in genocide studies.
There is a friction between those who do research on crimes against humanity and other historians. Genocide studies are profoundly affected by revisionism, which can be considered as a virus in research on mass crimes. It should be considered as a legal offence.
EJP: Will this protest made by prestigious historians have an effect on the current legislation?
YT: I don’t think so. This protest won’t get the results it’s seeking. Maybe the laws will be reformulated but they won’t be annulled. These texts are not well formulated and can be improved. But they won’t disappear. Their main quality is their mere existence. I don’t think the legislators will fold to the historians’ demands. They failed to do so in previous cases. They only obtained criticism.
EJP: On the one hand there are those who say these laws are excessive and on the other there are some controversial, some say anti-Semitic, figures like the comic Dieudonne that accuse France of over-commemorating the Holocaust. Do you think that numerous commemorations encourage anti-Semitism in certain communities?
YT: You could always imagine such schemes. But if you consider the Armenian community there is absolutely no such reaction. On the contrary, the Armenian and the Jewish communities see eye to eye in the memorial policies. The same thing can be said about the Rwandan community that is very close to the two others. There is no hostility between the three communities.
We have seen more recently exaggerations and exuberance that resulted from comparisons between the Shoah and much older events such as the massacres in the region of Vendee, or Napoleon’s crimes, mainly slavery. There is a certain unease that must be addressed and explained. You can’t deny that such excessive ideas can lead to anti-Semitism.
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