Paris — Faced with a storm of opposition from politicians, teachers and France’s most famous Holocaust survivor, President Nicolas Sarkozy backtracked this week from his proposal to have each child graduating primary school entrusted with the memory of one of the 11,000 French children murdered in the Holocaust.
France’s education minister, Xavier Darcos, announced Monday that entire classrooms, rather than individual children as envisioned by Sarkozy, would be charged with preserving the memory of the victims.
Since his election last May, Sarkozy has ruffled feathers by departing from the traditional neutrality of French presidents toward religion, openly proclaiming his Catholic faith and touting the role of religion in modern life during highly symbolic visits to the Vatican and Saudi Arabia.
Sarkozy unveiled his proposal for primary school students last week at the annual dinner of France’s main Jewish umbrella group, Conseil Représentatif des Institutions juives de France, or CRIF. The French president surprised not only his Jewish hosts, but also members of his own administration.
While Jewish leaders cautiously welcomed the intention to honor the memory of Jewish Holocaust victims, they expressed unease over its implementation and the risk that it could inflame ill feelings toward the community by singling out Jewish suffering. In recent years, debates have raged in France about the need to honor not only the victims of the Holocaust, but also of slavery and colonialism. Moreover, some officials have voiced concerns that young Muslims in France, many of whom identify with the Palestinian cause, would be unwilling to honor the memory of Jewish victims.
Yad Vashem in Jerusalem welcomed the idea and Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld, who identified each of the 11,400 Jewish children from France who perished during the war, hailed it as a major achievement. But among others, the criticism was swift and harsh.
Immediately after Sarkozy’s announcement, a broad array of figures, from politicians and teachers to historians and psychologists, denounced the proposal as imposing an undue burden on 9-year-olds by requiring them to bear the memory of a dead child.
Annette Wieworka, a historian who authored a pedagogical book titled, “Auschwitz Explained To My Daughter,” described the idea as insulting to teachers.
“Why not serve the Auschwitz soup in schools once a year?” she asked sarcastically.
The phalanx of opponents received a major boost when Simone Veil, France’s most famous Holocaust survivor and a former minister and Sarkozy backer, lashed out, arguing that the idea was “unimaginable, unbearable, tragic and, above all, unfair.”
“We can’t inflict this on 10-year-old children,” she told French media. “We can’t ask a child to identify with a dead child. The weight of this memory is much too heavy to bear.”
CRIF has treaded carefully in order not to openly criticize the first president to ever attend its annual dinner, and one who is an avowed supporter of Israel. The umbrella group’s chair, Richard Prasquier, welcomed the shift toward a more collective reckoning of the Holocaust.
“I’m clearly favorable that the memory of a child be carried by a whole class,” Prasquier told the French radio station France Inter, adding that the argument that 9-year-old children are too fragile for such memories is overblown, given the type of information that they are exposed to on television and the Internet.
Children in primary schools already receive some basic teaching about the Holocaust. Darcos, the education minister, announced that a commission would be set up to flesh out Sarkozy’s proposal. Veil has agreed to participate in the consultation process.