Sarkozy wants French pupils to ‘adopt’ Holocaust child victims

February 14, 2008

Nicolas Sarkozy and Richard Prasquier at CRIF dinner, 13 Feb 2008/Gonzalo FuentesThe “Sarko & secularism” story takes on ever new twists. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has already kicked up lively debates in France by praising religious faith whenever he can, defending his country’s Christian roots in a Roman basilica and complimenting the Saudis in Riyadh for fighting against fanaticism and fundamentalism. After the Catholics and the Muslims, France’s Jews were in line for some presidential stroking. It came on Wednesday evening, at the annual dinner of the leading Jewish organisation here, the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF).

Always good for a surprise, Sarkozy unexpectedly announced he wanted each 10-year-old pupil to study the life and death of one of France’s 11,000 child Holocaust victims. The president also announced he would visit Israel in May to mark its 60th anniversary and “won’t shake hands with people who refuse to recognise Israel” — a remark apparently ruling out any face-to-face meetings with Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

File photo of children survivors of Auschwitz showing their tattooed ID numbersOne of Sarkozy’s remarks at the CRIF dinner seemed to go too far even for his hosts. He said: “The drama of the 20th century was not due to an excess of God, but to his awesome absence. There is not a line in the Torah, the Gospel or the Koran, when seen in its context and the fullness of its meaning, that can put up with the massacres committed in Europe during the 20th century in the name of totalitarianism and a world without God.”

CRIF President Richard Prasquier, who described himself as a secular Jew, made it clear he preferred the the traditional approach of keeping Godtalk down to a whisper. He defended the 1905 law on laïcité and said it had “given Jews the benevolent neutrality (of the state) that guaranteed equality and produced concrete solutions to practical problems. For us, this law is part of the superego that links us to the French republic.” As for the butchery of the 20th century, he said: “I have too much respect for those Righteous among the Nations who were atheists to believe that religions are the only barrier to evil.

The idea of studying child Holocaust victims ran into criticism from politicians and teachers who said it might be psychologically too much for 10-year-olds to bear. “I don’t think we can impose remembrance,” former prime minister Dominique de Villepin said.

Former President Jacques Chirac at Paris Holocaust Memorial, 27 Jan. 2005/poolThe teachers’ union SE-Unsa said it was “particularly shocked by this presidential initiative that completely ignores how young people form their personalities. Must every child of 10 years now be personally charged with this weighty act of posthumous adoption?

But Jewish writer Marek Halter said it was a “tremendous initiative … for a child at school, the death of six million people is an abstraction.” But they could imagine “the face of a little Moshe, a little Isaac or a Jean-Jacques Rabinovitch.”

Education Minister Xavier Darcos said pupils would not be allowed to refuse to participate. Muslim pupils have been reported to refuse to discuss the Holocaust in class or to deny that it ever happened. “They are rare cases,” Darcos told France2 television. “It’s unacceptable and it is not accepted.”

Click here for interesting Le Monde analysis of “Sarkozy et Dieu” (in French).

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