Competing memories

Should particular categories of people in society – the Jews, the Armenians, the descendants of African slaves, etc. – be given protected status in certain special circumstances by each being granted the satisfaction of a legal memorial act which they might well have good reasons to demand? Should it be up to political authorities to define historical verities concerning certain traumatic events of the past in order to preserve, through the threat of criminal sanctions, the collective memory? Is there not a risk that in so doing conflicts of memories will be stirred up? These are some of the crucial, and very contemporary, questions tackled by La concurrence mémorielle (Memorial Competitions) (1), a collective work edited by Geoffrey Grandjean and Jérôme Jamin.

RememberIn Paris on December 22, 2011, the National Assembly adopted on its first reading a Bill, sponsored by the Member of Parliament Valérie Boyer (UMP), which aimed at cracking down on the ‘contestation of genocides established by the law.’ The Senate did the same on January 23, but the Constitutional court invalidated the text on february 28, 2012. In France two genocides are now legally recognised: the Shoah – whose denial was already punishable through the Gayssot Act (July 13, 1990), as well as the genocide of the Armenians (Act of January 29, 2001) which led to the deaths of one and a half million people between 1915 and 1917.

Contesting or minimising the latter will thus be also punishable in France: up to one year in prison and 45,000 Euros in fines. This text has already sparked of its share of irate reactions. With, at the forefront, threats of economic reprisals on the part of Turkey and cyber attacks by Turkish hackers against numerous French websites (notably those of the National Assembly, the Senate and the UMP).

In France the community of people of Armenian origin is estimated to be around 400,000, against a quasi comparable population of Turkish origins. As the two communities – need it be spelled out – do not at all deploy the same collective memory, this has given rise to forms of competition, and even conflict, which have become more and more high pitched.

In voting in this new memorial act, the French elected representatives have in any case set up a ‘dangerous trap’ (2). For if France recognises two genocides, the United Nations recognises a further two: that perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia (between 1975 and 1979), and that of the Tutsis, committed in Rwanda in 1994. If France were to simply recognise these two other massacres it would automatically mean that the Act applies to them. This would open the path to explosive disputes, particularly in the Rwandan case, in which the role of the French state has yet to be clarified.

Belgium has already legislated, let us remember, as far as the genocide of the Jews is concerned. The Act of March 23, 1995, cracks down on any denial, minimisation, justification and approval of it. On the other hand the Bills aiming to punish the negation of the Armenian genocide have not been brought to a conclusion up until now. Only a single resolution has been adopted by the Belgian senators, on March 17, 1998, inviting ‘the Turkish government to acknowledge the genocide perpetrated in 1915 by the last government of the Ottoman Empire.’

Here in Belgium, 150,000 people claim Turkish descent whilst the Armenian community hardly exceeds 10,000 (3). Let us add that in Belgium the right to vote in local elections was granted in 2004 to non-European foreigners, and that controversies over memory are thus no longer exempt from electoral concerns.

The political debate over criminal sanctions concerning denial is far from being closed. It even risks being exacerbated, in France as in Belgium, and all the more so when it bears on events which have not taken place on its territory, as is the case of the Armenian genocide.

(1) Grandjean G., Jamin J. (dir), La concurrence mémorielle, Ed. Armand Collin, Coll. Recherches, 2011
(2) Le Monde, « Lois mémorielles, la folle mécanique », Jérôme Gautheret, January 5, 2012.
(3) Figures cited by the Honorary Senator François Roelants du Vivier, in an open column of the « La Libre Belgique » newspaper, December 30, 2011, Loi pénale et négationnisme: un combat inachevé.

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