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The Best Since De Gaulle

For proposing French schoolchildren study the Holocaust, President Nicolas Sarkozy is being assailed as a child molester.

By 2.18.08

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For proposing French schoolchildren study the Holocaust, President Nicolas Sarkozy is being assailed as a child molester. This is an odd turn of events in a country that prides itself on its educational system, its love of the national story, its openness to human rights and universal values of freedom and justice.

Sarkozy, who decidedly is fated to be the kind of "right-winger" that "left-wingers" love to hate, proposed that French 5th graders adopt a French Jewish child who perished in the Holocaust. You may or may not favor project-based learning as a pedagogical method, but the idea is to become acquainted with your own country's fairly recent history by learning everything you can about the sad fate of a child, by definition close to you in age, who due to his religion (or his ancestors') did not make it to adolescence because he (or she) lived through a dark period in the history of your patrie, when it was under the Hunnish boot and was coerced into taking part in the defining crime of Europe's 20th century.

You learn who the child was. You maybe find a picture of him. You learn about the circumstances, political and military, that led to his vulnerability. You learn that he had parents and siblings and was, like you, learning about your common ancestors the Gauls, your common heroes and heroines, Joan of Arc and Charles Martel and the chevalier Bayard and the princesses of legend whom de Gaulle loved, and you learn, too, about Charles de Gaulle, who warned his compagnons, when he and they returned to liberated France, to remember that such evil as they fought against and defeated -- he referred specifically to the Nazis' destruction of the Jews -- could never be completely extirpated and they must be vigilant forever.

That is all Sarkozy, the most Gaullist president -- indeed the only really Gaullist president since Charles de Gaulle -- is proposing.

OBSERVE THAT NICOLAS SARKOZY is merely fulfilling a function that Aristotle defined as essential to statecraft, namely teaching. But many French teachers -- by no means all -- who are as intellectually corrupt and failure-prone (look at what has happened to their once-vaunted public education system: it stinks) as ours, complain that the president is imposing an intolerable burden of "guilt" on the little tykes.

That's rich. If guilt is to be assigned, it belongs to those who fail to apply Santayana's famous dictum about the past.

Observe too that politicians on the left -- by no means all -- claim that the man is injecting religious themes into the famously secular system because to talk about the Holocaust you have to talk about things like metaphysical evil and raise issues like the possibility of an indifferent Creator.

That's rich too, when you remember that French teachers and politicians used to have strong backgrounds in a subject called philosophy, wherein you learned that you did not have to be Jewish -- or Catholic -- to talk about evil and a supreme being.

But what happened?

What happened was that while visiting a school in Perigueux, a large and quaintly charming town in the southwest, Sarkozy was discussing educational issues and the importance of a strong history content in the curriculum and one idea led to another. He then proposed his curriculum addendum at the CRIF's annual dinner -- the first time, his critics did not fail to point out, a French president thus honored the equivalent of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, dangerously blurring, they added, the iron bar between church and state in France. (Sarkozy is Catholic.)

NOTE THAT THERE WAS a time when French kids in first grade knew more history than today's mentally stunted French adults. It was a biased history, of course. What else should it be? French kids learned of their legendary knights and princesses and English kids learned their glorious island story and Irish kids learned of champions and giant-slayers and American kids learned of drummer boys and frontiersmen, and Israeli kids -- before Israeli schools went the way of all school systems in free societies, which is to say down the tubes -- learned of Maccabees and prophets and pioneers. You teach the legend that makes your country real. De Gaulle himself thought the legend sometimes preferable to other versions of history, and where World War II was concerned, he thought it wise to inflate the notion of a nation united in resistance to the enemy.

However, France was one of the countries of the Shoah. The French state, the French police, many French opinion leaders, as we say, and others influentially positioned, partook gladly and willingly and without encouragement from the Hun, in the rolling massacres that were the Nazis' principal war aim. One hundred fifty thousand French Jews perished, about 40 percent of the total, and of these some 11,400 were children under the age of 16.

But that means, of course, that 60 percent survived, and many, perhaps most, did so with the active complicity of the neighbors of those who would have killed them. World War II was a foreign war for France; it was also a civil war.

No one likes to study and remember civil wars, with the possible exception of us, because our civil war was the fulfillment of our historical promise. In the 1940s, France came close to rejecting and destroying its national promise. Which in spite of it all, let's face it, remains glorious -- why else would this nation be everyone's second patrie, as Victor Hugo, or some other genius, said.

NICOLAS SARKOZY IS SAID to be a frivolous hyperkinetic crazy man. Listens to rock and roll in his car, marries pretty girls, enjoys Disneyland, wears blue jeans. De Gaulle always wore a correct suit, gray or navy blue, double breasted, never answered the phone (didn't have one in his office), addressed Mme. de Gaulle as "vous" not "tu." Can you imagine Nico saying "vous" to Carla?

You cannot. And maybe his education-reform ideas -- from 5th grade history to fixing France's broken university system -- are flaky. Anyway, his administration has scarcely begun. In any case, he shares this with his nation's last great man. He shares with de Gaulle a love of his country so strong and so emotional that he cannot stand to think of little French children not knowing that one time not so long ago other little French children were massacred because their state and their nation could not, would not, was not strong enough to protect them.

He does not want such a thing to happen ever again.

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.