The war-time story that I am about to tell has given rise to a controversy in France, which culminated yesterday when schoolteachers were expected—at the request of the president Nicolas Sarkozy—to read out in front of their students the final poignant letter to his parents penned by a young martyr named Guy Môquet.
His father, Prosper Môquet, a French railway-worker and trade-unionist, was the Communist member of parliament for a precinct of Paris. In 1939, since the PCF [Parti Communiste Français] supported the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, it was disbanded by the government, and Môquet senior was arrested. A few months later, he was deported by the French authorities to a prison camp in Algeria. Meanwhile, his son Guy, a student at the Lycée Carnot, had become a militant in the PCF youth movements.
Môquet junior distributed Communist leaflets denouncing the treason of French industrial leaders, and advocating the liberation of jailed Communists such as his father. Insofar as a French law of 1939 prohibited Communist propaganda, three French policemen arrested 15-year-old Guy Môquet at the Gare de l'Est métro station in Paris on 15 October 1940, and he ended up at a prison camp in Châteaubriant near Nantes. A year later, he was still imprisoned at that same place when a German commandant was assassinated at Nantes. In the reprisals, Guy Môquet was the youngest of 27 hostages at Châteaubriant who were executed by a Nazi firing squad on 22 October 1941.
Sarkozy's decision—announced on the day of his presidential investiture—instructing teachers to read out Guy Moquet's final letter, on the anniversary of his death, was unexpected and somewhat foolhardy. The French president should have known that, in imposing his conception of the celebration of a hero, he would irritate countless citizens. On the one hand, Communists don't wish to see one of their emblematic figures recuperated, as it were, by a right-wing politician such as Sarkozy. Besides, it's not clear whether the young Communist militant and martyr Guy Môquet should be placed in the category of authentic Résistance fighters... like the five heroic revolver-toting students from another Parisian lycée, Buffon [Jean Arthus, Jacques Baudry, Pierre Benoît, Pierre Grelot and Julien Legros], executed in February 1943 : the subject of an excellent TV film aired, by chance, last night. Finally, many teachers, professional historians and other observers consider that the State has no right to impose its points of view, or promulgate decisions of any kind whatsoever, in the domain of history.
The most profound opposition of all came from intellectuals who pointed out that Sarkozy is confusing two related but fundamentally different concepts: on the one hand, the scholarly pursuit of history, and on the other, the emotional phenomenon referred to, in French, as memory, concerning events that are so recent that their recollection still causes pain. Schoolteachers are expected to handle—as objectively as possible—the first of these concepts: history. Sarkozy's directive, however, lies clearly in the domain of memory: that's to say, relatively recent dramatic events that still hurt... which have no place in history classrooms.
I was shocked when I first heard of Sarkozy's decision, and I was utterly flabbergasted—like countless French people—when it was revealed that Sarkozy's buddy Bernard Laporte, trainer of the national rugby team, was so ridiculously zealous that he mimicked the president's sensitivity by reading out Guy Môquet's letter to the team just before their opening match... which they lost to Argentina. On the other hand, I'm reassured to find that so many French teachers refused intelligently to tolerate Sarkozy's silly brainchild.