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Accueil Actualités Lest we forget Commemoration fever in France and in Ireland
Lest we forget Commemoration fever in France and in Ireland
Lundi 28 mai 2012

By Pierre Joannon, Consul General of Ireland in the South of France.

The French, no less than the Irish, are obsessed by history. In 1940, Elizabeth Bowen wrote in one of her report from Ireland to the British Ministry of Information: “I could wish that the English kept history in mind more, that the Irish kept it in mind less”1.  We may recall, similarly, that the French are not reputed to be suffering from a loss of memory, on the contrary. In consequence, there is nothing that the French or the Irish love quite as much as a good commemoration.

However, the exercise has its limits. Like the abuse of drink, the abuse of commemoration is fraught with danger. Intoxication with hard liquor and with ceremonies of remembrance can lead to a state of prostration and stupor crowned more often than not by a painful hangover. With the prospect of commemorating all the crucial events which took place during the decade of the Great War, the Irish are already dreading the pain of the mornings after nights of unbridled excess. For their part, the French have started to ask themselves if this frenzy of remembrance is not becoming an insidious disease to be diagnosed and cured before it is too late. This recent change of heart is all the more remarkable in that, as Roy Foster recently pointed out, it is France that “set the fashion” in this particular instance, France “where the notion of the present validating itself through remembering and citing the past is a long intellectual tradition”2. It should therefore be of interest to the Irish that the mother of all commemorations is suddenly pondering on the fortune and misfortune of its offsprings.

In France, as in most western democracies, when a problem arises in the public sphere, a commission is appointed to make recommendations. After a reasonable or unreasonable length of time, a superb report is produced which is received and welcomed with a polite interest at best or cautious silence at worse. It is then put on line on Internet or sent to gather dust on the shelves of the State’s stationery office. During the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, two commissions have tried to shed light on the dilemma of public commemoration : the Commission sur l’avenir et la modernisation des commémorations publiques appointed by Secretary of State Alain Marleix on the 13th of December 2007 under the chairmanship of retired historian André Kaspi; and the Mission d’information sur les questions mémorielles appointed by the French National Assembly on the 25th of March 2008 under the chairmanship of the President of the Assembly Bernard Accoyer3.

Both commissions have covered roughly the same ground each from a different angle. Their aim is summarized by the title of the Accoyer report: “Rassembler la Nation autour d’une mémoire partagée”, gathering the nation together around a shared memory. Between the two of them, these reports are more than five hundred pages long. Needless to say, their arguments and conclusions cannot be summed up within the limitation imposed by a short article. I will only try to extrapolate a few ideas relevant to the present debate on the forthcoming Irish commemoration of the events which occurred between 1912 and 1922.

Central to the reflection on the subject is the interpenetration of the two divergent and yet complementary notions of memory and history. The most comprehensive analysis of the entangled relationship between these two different aspects of our intricate connection to the past is the seminal work of French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, La Mémoire, l’Histoire, l’Oubli, published in Paris in 2001. Often quoted is the warning by this great thinker on the matter: “I am disturbed by the worrying spectacle of too much memory here, too much oblivion there, not to speak of the influence of commemoration and abuses of memory and oblivion. The idea of a policy of fair memory is, in that respect, one of my professed civic themes”4. This concept of a “fair memory” is closely akin to the probity expected from the scrupulous historian. It is not easy to reconcile them with the functions of commemoration which can differ from one country to the next. Most of the time, it is an exercise in popular psychotherapy conceived to enable people of various origins and different political creeds to live together in peace and harmony by sharing a common vision of the past. It can have other motives as well. In Ireland, remembrance practices such as reenactments, reconstruction of historical artefacts, heritage parks, memorial gardens and interpretative centres are also aimed at attracting tourists, exploiting historical sites and connecting with the Diaspora. It occurs to me that this thriving commemoration industry is less driven by historians than by civil servants of The Office of Public Works, undoubtedly  one of the most imaginative and effective departments of the State.

The policy of commemoration is by nature partial, fragmentary and selective. The trustworthiness of the “fair memory” as well as the indispensable concern for historical integrity can only suffer from the mixture of reference to and oblivion of the past which is at the heart of any commemoration, even if, as Martin Mansergh pointed out “There is nothing intrinsically wrong in drawing out the most constructive elements of the past, without ignoring the negatives”5. The problem is that the negatives are either concealed or, in some instances, given excessive prominence, most unsatisfactorily in either case. The bicentennial commemoration of the French revolution was keen to insist on the Declaration of the Rights of Man and on the unifying theme of liberty, equality and fraternity. Precautions were taken to ignore the massacres of September 1792 and the republican campaign of extermination of the Vendéens. In contrast, we have seen, in recent years, a certain number of public initiatives aimed at acknowledging the responsibility of the State in the fate of victims of its past and more recent policies: French Jews deported to concentration camps during World War II; Africans forcibly removed from their homeland and transported as slaves to Martinique, Guadeloupe and La Réunion; French settlers repatriated after Algerian independence; indigenous suppletive troops abandoned to the hands of their slaughterers or reluctantly accommodated on French soil; Armenians massacred by the Turks. These repentance pledges were commendable in so far as they were establishing beyond doubt that the nation was able and willing to face its darkest past as well as its shining hours of glory. However, these acts of contrition failed to achieve the anticipated result of reconciling and integrating the aggrieved minorities. Vociferous lobbies felt encouraged to cultivate a sense of acute victimization, endless recriminations and permanent demands for more penance and more compensation. The mainstream population felt wrongfully accused and put upon by this legislative recognition. Faith and pride in the fatherland was suddenly overshadowed by the shame of discovering the unpardonable sins of a wicked motherland.

These outbursts of self-contempt were met with strong criticism. A quotation of Albert Camus, chosen as epigraph of the Accoyer report, did set the tone of what was to follow: “It is good that a nation should have enough tradition and honour to find the courage of denouncing its own errors. But she must not forget the reasons for having self-esteem”.

The main objection stemmed from the fact that these exposures of past misdeeds were enshrined in laws voted by the French parliament. Nobody questioned the intentions of the legislators and a simple resolution would have seemed appropriate in the circumstances. What was considered as most disturbing was the fact that, by essence, the law prescribes a norm which implies a certain immutability and permanence whereas history is by definition subject to fluctuation and revision. The former is carved in stone, the latter is simply words on paper. Echoing Oscar Wilde who said that “the one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it”, we might observe that with the law, it is the contrary which is true: the only duty we owe to the legal norm is to comply, obey and respect it.

The lois mémorielles, or memory laws, as we call them, run many risks. The first one is the risk of unconstitutionality: in a democracy worthy of the name, Parliament has no right to decide what is the truth and to give an official interpretation of historical events. The second risk is to compromise the freedom of opinion and the freedom of speech. This is not a theoretical danger. The famous historian of the Ottoman Empire Bernard Lewis was condemned by the Tribunal de grande instance of Paris on the 21st of June 1995 for having refused to qualify as genocide the 1915 Turkish massacres of Armenians. Olivier Pétré-Grenouilleau, a French historian of the slave trade, was brought to court for having contested the fact that slavery was a genocide, and for having demonstrated that there was an African and an Arab dimension to the event. Although the charge was eventually withdrawn, a nasty campaign of opinion showed that the law could have very unpleasant consequences. There is also a very serious risk to the teaching and researching of history. These laws challenge the very foundation of history as a course of study free to determine its aims and methodology. The community of historians in France was quick to spot the danger. The association Liberté pour l’Histoire, launched in 2005 by a thousand historians led by such renowned scholars as René Rémond, Pierre Nora, Mona Ozouf, Paul Veyne and Françoise de Chandernagor, lost no time in waging their argumented war against the memory laws encroaching on the freedom of objective historical research6. A leader of the British House of Commons once said “History is too serious to be left to historians”. Perhaps, but one might add that it is too difficult to master to be left to ill-equipped politicians and judges. Another risk is to fragilize the consensus which cement the will of the people to live together by institutionalizing the internecine warfare between various segments of the population. Last but not least, there is a strong risk of diplomatic tension arising from the fact that these laws tend to become global in so far as what they denounce is not imputable to the State and did not even take place on the national territory. A cooling of diplomatic relations with Turkey was the consequence of the memory laws qualifying as genocide the 1915 massacres of Armenians and the concomitant sanctions attached to the negation of this qualification.

Having thus erected a barrier of criticisms against the handful of French memory laws, the members of the Accoyer commission didn’t dare to ask for their abrogation as it would be considered too offensive to the various minorities for which they are a recognition of their victimhood. But they expressed the wish that, in the future, Parliament would resist the temptation of foraging in the past and voting similar memory laws which should never have been voted in the first instance. This odd intellectual pirouette is the proof that “constructive ambiguity” is not a mode of thought and action (or inaction) limited to the Northern Ireland peace process. It is sometime put to good use on the banks of the Seine for better or worse.

If I have devoted some space to this peculiar French problem, it is because of the impossibility to talk about our attitude to commemoration without mentioning the impasse into which we have painted ourselves. By doing so, it was also my intention to beg our Irish friends to stay away from this perilous path. Irish TD’s seem to me too pragmatic to emulate our parliamentarians, but if ever they were tempted to manipulate history and invoke their sense of duty to embark in this illegitimate process, it might be useful to give them the advice that Graham Greene puts in the mouth of the English journalist addressing The Quiet American: “Don’t play with the matches”.

Everybody agree that public commemorations at national level are too numerous in France. We have twelve such days of remembrance, twice as many as in 1999. The result is disaffection. Part of the loss of interest is the feeling of overdose. “Too many commemorations, insist André Kaspi, kills commemoration”. But there is another factor, more recent and more perverse, denounced by Pierre Nora. It is “the crisis of historical consciousness” attributable to a set of factors highlighted in both the Accoyer and the Kaspi reports: the progress of relativism and individualism, the impact of deconstructivism on modern historiography, the cult of immediacy imposed by the Internet and social media, and a mixture of incuriosity for and sheer ignorance of things past. I don’t think that the French who have been so imbued with their national history are the only one to suffer from this recent syndrome of historical amnesia.  I would be prepared to bet that, after 2023, the Irish will be so sick of commemorations of all kind that they will be ready to agree with Shelley who wrote in the final chorus of Hellas: “The world is weary of the past, Oh, might it die or rest at last”.

The remedy suggested by the authors of the Kaspi report is to limit to three the number of national commemorations: the 11th of November to remember all those who died for France at any given time and not only the “poilus” fallen during the great war, the last survivor of which passed away in may 2011 (this recommendation was voted last February by the French parliament); the 8th of May to celebrate the victory over Nazism; and the 14th of July to pay respect to the values inherited from the French revolution. All the other commemorations would not be suppressed but they would be organized at regional or local level, and their periodicity would be reappraised.

To alleviate the exhaustion that menaces the French, the Irish, and probably many others, we should invent where they don’t exist and improve where they do other forms of linkage to the past. The teaching of history is one of the essential aspects of the subject as it commands the sensibility to and knowledge of what happened to our forebears. Programs should be updated and expanded within the curriculum. And the sober requirements of the “fair memory” dear to Paul Ricoeur and respect of the integrity of historical methodology should be adhered to faithfully. As a matter of principle, the need for objectivity and balance is so obvious that I don’t have to expand the argument any further7.

New means of communication should be put to good use, even if, by nature, they may not be as scrupulous as one would desire and expect. Newspapers, Internet, blogs, television and cinema have an immense role to play. Neil Jordan’s film Michael Collins has done more to enhance the figure of the Big Fellow than all the commemorations at Beal na mBlath since the creation of the Free State. In France, the series of films made by the late Pierre Schoendoerffer on the French wars in Indochina, and Algeria, are more eloquent, informative and thought provoking than huge history tomes on the subject. La 317ème section, filmed without grandiloquence and effects, is by far superior to all the American films on the Vietnam war put together.

Museums are another tool. Among the most recent initiatives taken in France is the Musée de la Grande Guerre du pays de Meaux, officially inaugurated on the 11th of November 2011. It is exhibiting no less than fifty thousands artefacts and documents which add considerably to our perception and understanding of the brutal transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century.

A decree adopted on the 22nd of December 2011 by the French government has also decided to create La Maison de l’Histoire de France, an interactive museum, the aims of which are “to put history at the heart of society, to show all its many facets and to stimulate reflection and debate on the essential episodes of the history of our country, taking into account the European and international dimensions”. Situated on the former site of the Archives Nationales in the picturesque Paris quarter of Le Marais, the Maison de l’Histoire de France will be opened in 2015. Could similar projects be undertaken in Ireland? I believe so. Take for example the National Museum of Ireland’s exhibition on “Soldiers and Chiefs: The Irish at War at Home and Abroad since 1550”. It explores how soldiering and war have affected the lives of Irish people and helped to create modern Ireland. In view of its resounding success, I am convinced that it should be made permanent. Looking beyond the borders of the nation state, this exhibition connects Ireland to Europe and the world in a transnational narrative which is what contemporary history should be all about8. If I may venture another suggestion, would it not be of interest to the country to transform the beautiful Parliament House of College Green, soon to be vacated by the Bank of Ireland, into a museum of the Irish constitutional tradition from Grattan to the present days. Matching the G.P.O., legitimate shrine of the physical force tradition, it would highlight and reconcile the two formative trends which were the building blocks of contemporary Ireland.

The Accoyer report also suggests that we should work towards what the historian, statesman and member of the European Parliament Bronislaw Geremek has called the “reunification of European memories”. Whether we like it or not, whether we are conscious of it or not, we cannot nowadays define ourselves as French or Irish only. We now share a hyphenated identity which makes it all the more indispensable to look beyond the limits of our respective borders. The writing of our histories, as well as our policies of rememoration and commemoration, must take into account the European dimension and the European influences which have shaped the fate of our respective countries.

In this context France and Germany have taken a bold and exemplary step. On the 23rd of January 2003, the Youth Parliament assembled in Berlin for the 40th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty which gave birth to the “Franco-German couple” suggested the creation of a common school text book. The idea was enthusiastically endorsed by French president Jacques Chirac and German chancellor Gerhard Schröder. It was put on the agenda of the decentralized cooperation between the two countries, and eventually approved by the two governments in October 2003. The desire to favour the emergency of an historical conscience common to young German and French within the process of European unification was so strong that obstacles, and there were plenty, were swiftly overcome. A scientific commission made up of ten French and ten German experts was appointed to delineate the project. A contract was signed with two publishing houses, the Editions Nathan in Paris and Ernst Klett Verlag in Stuttgart, which were given the task of implementing the prerequisites of the scientific commission. Each chapter of  the  text book was jointly written by two historians, one French, one German. In 2006, a common Franco-German text book for leaving cert students was published under the title Histoire/Geschichte. Far from being an official manual, it was offered in both countries as a complement to the national curriculum at the discretion of the teachers. Its contents were limited to five chapters: Memoirs of the Second World War; technical, economic, social and cultural relations since the war; Europe between the United States and the USSR from 1949 to the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989; Europe in the world from 1989 to the present day; German and French since the war. Such was the success of this initiative that two other volumes intended for younger pupils were published in quick succession: a text book on Europe and the world from the Congress of Vienna to 1945, published in 2008; and one on Europe and the world from the Antiquity to 1815, published in 2009. Needless to say, this extraordinary venture has implications for others. It should be an inspiration to our western neighbours. The transformation of Ireland in the last thirty years, the membership of Britain and Ireland of the European Union, the Northern Ireland peace process, and the new relationship between the three interested parties exemplified by the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, seems to me to pave the way for a similar approach allowing historians on both sides of the border and on both shores of the Irish sea to collaborate more closely in order to favour the emergence in the archipelago of a common historical consciousness within the process of European unification. If Germany and France were able to do it, why North and South, Ireland and Britain should not be capable of bringing forth such a timely historical aggiornamento in spite of the obvious difficulties that it would entail.

The recognition of the complexity of the task should not deter us from advancing in that direction. If only because it is the only cure to the commemoration hangover which we are heading for. The alternative as suggested by Roy Foster, is total abstinence: “Should we, he said, go so far as to follow the suggestion that the next commemoration might take the form of raising a monument to Amnesia, and forgetting where we put it? Not entirely: as a historian I have to be rather shocked by the idea. But as an Irishman I am rather attracted to it”9. As a Frenchman, I am too, in a way. But everything being considered, I strongly believe that we should not become historical teetotallers. If Guinness is good for you, there is no reason to suppose that history, taken in moderation, should not be just as beneficial.

Pierre Joannon


1. Eibhear Walshe (ed.), Elizabeth Bowen’s Selected Irish Writings, Cork, Cork University Press, 2011, p. 54.
2. R. F. Foster, The Irish Story, London, Penguin Books, 2002, p. 28.
3. Assemblée Nationale. Rapport d’information no 1262, Paris, 2008.
4. Paul Ricœur, La Mémoire, l’Histoire, l’Oubli, Paris, Le Seuil, 2000, p. I.
5. Martin Mansergh : « The value of historical commemoration » in The Legacy of History, Cork, Mercier Press, 2003, p. 18.
6. Pierre Nora, Françoise Chandernagor, Liberté pour l’Histoire, Paris, CNRS Editions, 2008.
7. John M. Regan, « Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: the two histories” in History Ireland, January/February 2012, pp. 10-13.
8. Enda Delaney, “Directions in historiography: Our island story? Towards a transnational history of late modern Ireland”, in Irish Historical Studies, no  48, November 2011, pp. 599-621.
9. R. F. Foster, op. cit., pp. 35-36.