Sarkozy's Brave Move by Thane Rosenbaum

The New York Sun

Sarkozy's Brave Move

February 25, 2008

President Sarkozy's honeymoon with the French people may have finally come to an end over, of all things, the Holocaust.

After an all-too-public divorce from his wife, Cecilia, followed by a tabloid-assisted romancing of a former supermodel and present pop star, Carla Bruni, now his new wife, the French president's approval ratings have declined and there is widespread disappointment of his management of the economy — all of this in just the first eight months that he has been in office.

Yet, the piece de resistance of Mr. Sarkozy's stumbles may have come last week when he announced a decision to require all fifth grade students to learn the story of one of the 11,000 French Jewish children murdered by the Nazis.

Some have likened this proposal to Mr. Sarkozy's broader efforts to nudge his nation to embrace new ideas, whether in extending the hours of the workweek, or regarding America in more favorable terms, or accepting the public flirtations of a gallivanting president. Yet, criticism of this initiative has been especially swift and varied. There are those who reject Mr. Sarkozy's brazen tampering with the school curriculum. Others simply feel that it is inappropriate, if not altogether traumatic, for fifth graders to study such a gruesome subject. Still others dislike singling out only Jewish victims of the Nazis, even though 75,000 French Jews lost their lives in the Holocaust. Some fear that focusing on the Holocaust will alienate France's large Arab population. Finally, many complain that Mr. Sarkozy invoked religion as a basis for this public act of memory.

Still, no one should be that surprised by Mr. Sarkozy's latest challenge to French patience. He is, as a statesman, avowedly progressive and infinitely entertaining. But there is, perhaps, something more to this episode than competing visions of presidential authority, something that speaks to Mr. Sarkozy as an instrument for moral change, and also, to his nation's resistance to such change.

For one thing, although Mr. Sarkozy is a practicing Catholic, he has never shied away from his Jewish ancestry (his maternal grandfather is Jewish) or his support for Israel. And despite the fact that France is home to a large number of agnostics and prides itself on a longstanding secular political tradition, Mr. Sarkozy has caused some discomfort by referring to God too casually in his speeches, and by insisting that morality should not be detached from the public sphere. For these reasons, his exercise of moral leadership in remembering the Holocaust may have as much to do with private convictions as civic duty. But there is also Mr. Sarkozy's pro-American sensibility, which has endeared him to Americans and reversed Franco-American relations nearly overnight. The French witnessed their president taking his first summer vacation in Maine, eating hot dogs, and proudly proclaiming himself "Sarkozy the American."

Indeed, Mr. Sarkozy adopted an American way of thinking when it came to market reforms, terrorist alerts, work ethics, and even jogging in public. A national mourning over the Holocaust surely could not be far behind.

After all, outside of Germany, no nation has devoted more scholarship and erected more memorials to the Holocaust than America. For many years, at least until September 11, the Holocaust was America's atrocity de jour. Perhaps Mr. Sarkozy is merely importing America's cultural obsession with the Holocaust at the precise moment when Americans themselves are suffering from Holocaust over-saturation and fatigue.

There is moral appeal to Mr. Sarkozy carrying the Holocaust torch across the Atlantic and igniting it in his own country. France has never quite properly internalized this European tragedy as its own. Nor has it sufficiently reflected on its complicity in the crime.

After all, France was ground zero for the Dreyfus Affair, which, three decades before the Third Reich, provided a blueprint for the Nazi's more murderous brand of Jew hatred. And France forever will be stained with its sordid Vichy history of betrayal and collaboration.

Yet, more than 60 years later, there is still the persistent national fairytale that Vichy collaborators were outnumbered by French resistance fighters and rescuers. President Sarkozy is at least one Frenchman who knows that the moral failure of France is not so easily reinvented.

By reaching out to the school children of France and placing the burden of memory on them, Mr. Sarkozy has, perhaps intentionally, hit upon the most sensitive of national nerves. Being reminded of the thousands of murdered Jewish children is too uncomfortable for the French. One can only wonder, and then shudder, how they might have contributed to French society had they been permitted to live.

In this instance, the attacks against Mr. Sarkozy are but another version of French cultural protectionism, a cynical way to prevent the ghosts of Holocaust memory to penetrate the tight seal of French guilt.

Studying the Holocaust has nothing to do with religion. And fifth graders are not too emotionally fragile to imagine the life of another French child whose life ended tragically and too soon.

The French may disapprove of Mr. Sarkozy's public displays of affection for his new wife, but his public gesture with respect to the Holocaust should be a source of national pride, not shame. If nothing else, it will remind the citizens of France that their remembrance of the Holocaust has been inadequate and long overdue, but, in the hands of French school children, perhaps it will not be too late.

Mr. Rosenbaum, a novelist, essayist, and law professor, is the author of "The Golems of Gotham."