Guy Moquet was a 17 year-old French high school student who was arrested by the Nazis in 1940 for distributing Communist literature. The Nazis executed Moquet the following year in retaliation for the killing of German soldiers by members of the resistance. Before the execution, Moquet wrote a now-famous letter to his family urging them to be brave and expressing the hope that his death will “serve a purpose.”
The new French President Nicolas Sarkozy has decreed that Moquet’s letter be read to all French junior high school students as a celebration of resistance and sacrifice for one’s country. This decision has led to large-scale protests by teachers, many of whom have said they will not read the letter. The government has not reversed its decision, although it appears that no action will be taken against teachers who do not comply.
There’s a good reason why Moquet’s letter should not be read to students. Moquet was a Communist agitator, not a member of the French resistance. And his letter, though brave, says nothing about sacrifice for one’s country. Indeed, it doesn’t even mention France. That’s not surprising — as a Communist Moquet presumably was an internationalist at best (and a pro-Soviet Stalinist at worst), not a French nationalist.
It’s not clear, however, that the resistance by France’s teachers to Sarkozy’s decree stems from Moquet’s lack of credentials as a patriot. In the news report I saw tonight on French television, the resistance seemed to have more to do with (a) resentment at being told what to do by Sarkozy and (b) a lack of desire to promote patriotism and sacrifice for country. One teacher sniffed that there are better ways to teach about the French resistance. But Sarkozy isn’t devising a course on the resistance movement; he’s trying to inject a little bit of patriotism into one school day. The problem is that he picked a poor example.
But that’s not to say that Sarkozy made a mistake. More likely, I imagine, he made a gesture to the French left.
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“Arise and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.” Winston Churchill
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