A French Debate over Guy Môquet

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Reaction to French President Nicolas Sarkozy's attempt to honor the memory of an executed Resistance fighter speaks volumes about his relationship with French society: half the country applauded the move whereas the other half denounced it as a cynical attempt to advance his own ideological agenda. At issue is Sarkozy's decision to have every school in France stage annual Oct. 22 readings of the letter written by 17-year-old Resistance member Guy Môquet penned to his family shortly before his Nazi captors executed him in 1941. The letter begins with a tender call to "My dearest Mother, my beloved little brother, my beloved father", informing them, "I'm going to die!". It ends with the selfless and uplifting, "Of course I would have preferred to live. But what I want with all my heart is for my death to serve some purpose."

What's fueling the debate over Môquet's letter is precisely what Môquet considered that higher purpose to be. In the view of Sarkozy and his backers, it was overthrowing Nazi domination for the freedom and liberty of the French nation; to others, it was overthrowing the very market system Sarkozy is seeking to bolster as he reforms France's welfare state. The youthful Môquet, many observers note, was a communist committed to revolution; a poem he wrote on the day of his arrest promised to "kill capitalism," and sought to give heart to those "brothers in slavery (jailed by) the traitors of our country, those agents of capitalism." Little wonder, then, that Môquet has always been a preferred icon of France's Communist Party. In leftist solidarity, the opposition Socialists accuse Sarkozy of seeking to requisition a leftist icon to his own ideological ends.

"The problem Sarkozy faces isn't always opposition to what it is he says he wants to do, but rather doubts about why he's actually trying to do it," comments Dominique Reynié, a French political analyst and teacher at the Foundation of Political Science in Paris. "A lot of people worry about going along with what he's proposing out of fear they'll learn they've been duped once it's too late."

Too late for what? In this case, the debate rages. France's leading teachers' union, SNES, opposed the forced reading, arguing that injecting political messages into schools from above violates the principles of secular neutrality that led to the ban of religious objects like yarmulkes and Islamic hijab in public schools. That official state secularism was imposed at public schools in 1903 to end previous practices of Catholic theology being taught under the guise of non-denominational education; critics claim Sarkozy's embrace of the Môquet letter restores that practice on an ideological level. "Can we take the risk that the event will transform the high school into a political arena?" asked SNES in a statement explaining why it was urging its members not to respect the reading of the letter.

Other opponents objected to the simplified honoring of Môquet's memory outside the context of the class struggle to which he and many other Resistance fighters were committed. That dumbing-down of history to provoke simplistic patriotic reaction bothers Leftist critics — especially given charges that Sarkozy's recent creation of a Ministry of Immigration and National Identity gives patriotism a xenophobic edge.

Finally, some question Sarkozy's motives due to his belated embrace of Môquet's memory. Teachers at the Guy Môquet school say they had to lobby educational authorities for years before being allowed to change the name of the establishment in his honor. Nearly 20 years passed before anyone bothered to even notice the name change, and when they did, it came with massive media attention due to Sarkozy's recent decision. "When there's such a strong institutional pressure, you get the feeling you're being appropriated and exploited," Jérôme Muzard, a teacher at the Lycée Guy-Môquet in Châteaubriant told the daily La Croix. "One wonders what will remain of it all in students' minds."