PARIS — President Nicolas Sarkozy dropped an intellectual bombshell this week, surprising the nation and touching off waves of protest with his revision of the school curriculum: beginning next fall, he said, every fifth grader will have to learn the life story of one of the 11,000 French children killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust.
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Caroline Blumberg/European Pressphoto Agency
President Nicolas Sarkozy with a schoolgirl who had just taken his photograph on Friday during his visit to Périgueux, France.
“Nothing is more moving, for a child, than the story of a child his own age, who has the same games, the same joys and the same hopes as he, but who, in the dawn of the 1940s, had the bad fortune to be defined as a Jew,” Mr. Sarkozy said at the end of a dinner speech to France’s Jewish community on Wednesday night. He added that every French child should be “entrusted with the memory of a French child-victim of the Holocaust.”
Adding to the national fracas over the announcement, Mr. Sarkozy wrapped his plan in the cloak of religion, placing blame for the wars and violence of the last century on an “absence of God” and calling the Nazi belief in a hierarchy of races “radically incompatible with Judeo-Christian monotheism.”
Education Minister Xavier Darcos explained later that the aim of the plan was to “create an identification between a child of today and one of the same age who was deported and gassed.”
The Holocaust is already taught in French schools, but some psychiatrists and educators predicted that requiring students to identify with a specific victim would traumatize them.
Secularists accused Mr. Sarkozy, who is already under fire for his frequent praise of God and religion, of subverting both the country’s iron-clad separation of church and state and the national ideal of a single, nonreligious identity for all.
Political opponents dismissed the plan as his latest misguided idea, unveiled without reflection or consultation. Some historians argued that the focus on victims could steer attention away from the Vichy government’s collaboration with the Nazis. Still others warned that the plan could backfire, creating resentment among France’s ethnic Arab and African populations if they felt their own histories were getting short shrift.
“Every day the president throws out a new unhappy idea with no coherence,” said Pascal Bruckner, the philosopher. “But this last one is truly obscene, the very opposite of spirituality. Let’s judge it for what it is: a crazy proposal of the president, not the word of the Gospel.”
The initiative has also pitted some Jews against one another. “It is unimaginable, unbearable, tragic and above all, unjust,” Simone Veil, a Holocaust survivor and honorary president of the Foundation for the Memory of the Holocaust, told the Web site of the magazine L’Express. “You cannot inflict this on little ones of 10 years old! You cannot ask a child to identify with a dead child. The weight of this memory is much too heavy to bear.”
Ms. Veil was in the audience when Mr. Sarkozy spoke, and said that when she heard his words, “My blood turned to ice.”
But Serge Klarsfeld, a Jewish historian who has devoted his life to recording the list and biographies of France’s Holocaust victims, praised the president for his “courage.”
“This is the crowning glory of long and arduous work,” he said. “To those who say it’s too difficult for young children — that’s not true. What they see on television or in a horror film is much worse. This is not a morbid mission.”
Mr. Klarsfeld likened the plan to a practice by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., which gives visitors small booklets describing the experiences of Holocaust victims and survivors.
On one level, Mr. Sarkozy’s plan is a logical extension of his sometimes sentimental and pedagogical approach to governing. Last year, he enraged politicians on the left, the biggest union for high school teachers and some historians and teachers when he ordered all high schools in France to read a handwritten letter of a 17-year-old student who was executed by the Nazis for his resistance activities.
On another level, it reflects his oft-stated declaration that as president, he is also a “friend” as he calls himself, of Israel. By extension, he is also a friend of France’s Jews. He is, for example, the first French president to address the annual dinner of France’s Jewish community. But there is something else. Mr. Sarkozy is shattering another barrier in French intellectual life: religion. His public statements on the subject seem to reflect a deeply held belief that religious values have an important place in everyday French society — an iconoclastic position for a French politician.
When Mr. Sarkozy was made an Honorary Canon of the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome last December, he proposed a “positive secularism” that “does not consider religions a danger, but an asset.” He was even more provocative in declaring that “the schoolteacher will never be able to replace the priest or the pastor” in teaching the difference between good and evil.
In Saudi Arabia last month, he infused his speech with more than a dozen references to God, who, he said, “liberates” man. He also said last month that it was a mistake to delete the reference to “Europe’s Christian roots” from the European Constitution.
In France, a country where one’s religion is typically kept private, Mr. Sarkozy heralds his religious identity, referring publicly to his Jewish grandfather and wearing his Roman Catholicism on his sleeve.
“I am of Catholic culture, Catholic tradition, Catholic belief, even if my religious practice is episodic,” he wrote in a book of essays in 2004. “I consider myself as a member of the Catholic Church.”
Still, Mr. Sarkozy’s conduct in his personal life seems to contradict the image of Catholic spirituality. Twice divorced, three times married, he has alienated the country to the point that there is widespread disapproval of his behavior in his personal life.
That level of disapproval seems to have made Mr. Sarkozy vulnerable in almost anything he does these days, including his Holocaust initiative.
Teachers defended the current approach to the Holocaust in French schools. Since 2002, fifth-graders have studied the Nazis’ systematic destruction of six million Jews as a crime against humanity.
Older children watch films on the Holocaust, visit Holocaust museums and memorials and take field trips to concentration camps. Schools where students were taken away for deportation hang plaques in their memory.
“The Holocaust has to be put in the context of the rise of the Nazis and the war, not just emotion and dramatic spectacle,” said Gilles Moindrot, secretary-general of the largest union for primary school teachers. “If you do this with the memory of individual Jews, you’d have to do it with the victims of slavery or the wars of religion. We can’t have this approach.”
Some of Mr. Sarkozy’s other political foes accuse him of trying to put his personal stamp everywhere. “One day he is giving us sermons about God,” said Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a Socialist senator on LCI television on Friday, adding, “Now he has suddenly turned himself into a teacher.”
Other analysts blamed the confessional approach of the United States for infecting Mr. Sarkozy’s thinking. “Listen, it’s in the air of the times,” said Régis Debray, the philosopher and author, on France Inter radio Friday. “There is a religious sentimentality, a pretty vague religiousness, let’s say, in the world of show business, in the world of business, that comes from America. It’s the neoconservative wave of the born-agains.”
MRAP, an organization that campaigns against racism, accused Mr. Sarkozy of chauvinism by singling out French victims of the Holocaust for study and excluding other groups, like the Gypsies.
Mr. Sarkozy’s advisers acknowledged that he came up with his Holocaust plan for schoolchildren without any formal consultation. In the face of the criticism, however, Mr. Sarkozy vowed to proceed.
“It is ignorance — not knowledge — that leads to the repetition of abominable situations,” he said during a visit to Périgueux in central France on Friday, adding, “You do not traumatize children by giving them the gift of the memory of a country.”