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French Law Emphasizing Positives of Colonial History Causes Uproar

New legislation emphasizing the positive aspects of French colonial history is stirring an uproar in France. The discord feeds into the debate on problems of integrating the country's ethnic immigrants, following last months riots. France's prime minister also appears to oppose the law.

The law in question calls for teaching the positive aspects of France's colonial history in French public schools, as well as the negative ones. It sailed through French parliament with very little attention last February. But when France's conservative-dominated parliament voted to keep the law in place last week, a storm of criticism ensued.

Critics of the legislation include President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria, which fought a long and bloody war of independence from France. But many other opponents, ranging from leftist French lawmakers and immigration rights groups, have also called for the legislation to be rescinded.

Mouloud Aounit, the head of the Paris-based anti-discrimination group MRAP, explains why.

Mr. Aounit says its up to historians to interpret France's colonial past and not for French lawmakers to dictate what should be taught in public schools. His views echo those of many other critics, including Algerian Rabah Mahiout.

Mr. Mahiout, who lives in Paris, fought in Algeria's war of independence, half a century ago.

Mr. Mahiout says by definition colonialism is not a humanitarian mission - it is about exploiting others. He says France may have built a few schools and hospitals during its long occupation of Algeria, but it basically did the minimum.

Supporters of the legislation argue they are merely trying to offer a balanced picture of France's colonial past. But that has not calmed the uproar.

France's interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, even canceled a trip this week to the French Antilles, where protest groups had planned to stage rallies against the legislation. And in Martinique, Aime Cesaire, one of France's most prominent writers about French colonialism, had refused to meet with Mr. Sarkozy.

Now it appears the country's center-right government may be backtracking on the legislation. During a radio interview, French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin called for dialogue, rather than confrontation.

Mr. de Villepin also told France's RTL radio that it was not up to politicians to write French history. He said that was a rule France must remain faithful to. That statement appeared to side with those who call for repealing the law.

Some experts believe the French legislation aimed to gain support from the country's far right voters before the 2007 presidential elections. But lawmakers clearly did not expect it would spark so much anger on the part of many other French.