Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Le Parlement légifère sur l'histoire...

While many in Europe profess themselves uneasy with the limitations on freedom of speech respresented by laws criminalising holocaust denial (as evinced by the decidedly lukewarm reaction to the news that David Irving had been arrested on such charges in Austria recently), the French Parliament has decided to move in exactly the opposite direction. Holocaust denial is already illegal in France, outlawed by the 1990 Loi Gayssot; however, they have decided to go one step further, as the Parliament has provisionally passed a bill proposed by the opposition Socialist Party last week, which will penalise anyone denying that the Turks carried out a campaign of genocide against the Armenians from 1915-1917, thus "completing" a law of 21 January 2001, which officially recognised that the relevant events constituted genocide. The penalty envisaged is one year in prison and a 45,000 Euro fine.

The Turks, who refuse to acknowledge that their actions at that time were genocidal, are more than a little upset by this, particularly as it comes at a time when the EU is pressuring them to remove their own restrictions on freedom of expression; and they and others have not been slow to point out France's considerably more ambiguous relation to its own past, be it in terms of Algeria or, more recently, of the Vichy collaboration during the Second World War. It has further been suggested that the new law was specifically designed to complicate Turkey's admission to the EU. This is certainly a major issue in French politics, although I am unsure as to the official line of the Partie Socialiste in this regard. In any event, the potential to hinder Turkey's accession will undoubtedly have been a significant factor in garnering cross-party support for the initiative. Chirac, it seems, is against the proposal.

There are, to my mind, many reasons for feeling less than comfortable with the very idea of Parliament legislating on history, not the least of which are the implications for freedom of speech through criminalising the uttering of certain words. This is not to say, of course, that freedom of speech can or should be absolutely unfettered by the law: few would argue, for example, with some limits set by defamation or libel laws; and many, myself included, feel that there is a role to be played by laws against the incitement of racial hatred. As always, then, the urgent task is not to seek escape into abstract absolutes, but rather to enter into the context of controversies, and to make and take responsibility for a choice informed by the circumstances of the case.

What, then, could be the reason for this latest step? The PS seems, officially at least, to be stressing the logical need to "complete" the law of 2001; but this, of course, only shifts the focus of debate back a few years. It is possible to argue that denial of the Armenian genocide now contributes to a climate which can lead to continuing suffering of those involved: however, it is pertinent to ask whether this problem (of anti-Armenian sentiment) is of sufficient seriousness in contemporary France to warrant the extreme measures taken. Further, in respect of all such arguments where history is being determined by the legislature, we may well inquire into the current harm that such denial causes that cannot, in large degree, be covered under existing incitement laws.

There is, of course, the good of securing acknowledgement of respect for the wrongs of the past; surely, however, the best way to achieve this is through diligent scholarship rather than by parliamentary fiat. If such scholarship is inconclusive, then this is simply a greater reason to distrust legislative efforts in the field; I can see no good reason for looking to law-makers where historians have "failed". Perhaps here we have the crux of the matter, however: that law and history are in some senses incommensurable. The law simplifies, reduces: it speaks (or at least aims to speak) with one voice, that of unshakeable authority; history, on the other hand, is pluroivocal; contested; ambiguous - all of the things that law seeks not to be.

Allowing law to speak for history, then, is a usurpation by the former and a tragedy for the latter; a very powerful set of reasons indeed must be in place for any defence thereof to be persuasive. It must be borne in mind always that this conclusion in no way bears upon the historical debates involved, of which I am almost entirely ignorant; to my mind, however, the necessary justifications are singularly lacking in France's recent move to legislate the history of another region.

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