French President Nicolas Sarkozy defended a proposal to make French 10-year-olds honor child victims of the Holocaust Friday, saying adults should not hide terrible truths from children.
The idea, floated by the president earlier this week, rankled psychologists worried about traumatizing youth and has teachers reviving debates about how France remembers World War II.
On Friday, Sarkozy stood firmly by his proposal, in meetings with teachers over proposed reforms of France's school system.
"We must tell a child the truth," he said. "We do not traumatize children by giving them the gift of the memory of the country."
The president wants each child in the last year of French primary school, at roughly 10 years old, to "adopt" the memory of one of the 11,000 Jewish children in France killed in the Holocaust, learning about the selected child's background and fate.
"If you do not talk to them of this tragedy, then you should not be surprised if it repeats itself. It is ignorance that prompts the repetition of abominable situations, not knowledge. Make our children into children with open eyes," Sarkozy said.
His education minister, Xavier Darcos, acknowledged that it would be "complicated" to make the idea work, but said children would start adopting Holocaust victims in the next school year.
Respected former Health Minister Simone Veil, herself a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, said she found the plan chilling.
"It's unimaginable, unbearable, tragic, and above all, unfair," Veil was quoted as saying on the Web site of L'Express magazine. "We can't inflict this on 10-year-old children. We can't ask a child to identify with a dead child. The weight of this memory is much too heavy to bear."
The proposal's supporters include renowned Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld. Much of the existing information about France's Holocaust victims, including the 11,000 children, came out of research led by Klarsfeld.
He welcomed the prospect that the memory of the Holocaust victims "will be preserved individually by children who will carry it through this century."
Klarsfeld's efforts were instrumental in unearthing details about the collaborationist Vichy regime of World War II - and in getting France to come to terms with that difficult chapter in its history.
Psychiatrist Serge Hefez was among those who voiced reservations about Sarkozy's idea, saying on LCI television that adults should not "impose ghosts" on children.
Teachers unions complained that they were not consulted ahead of time. "He is foisting on 10-year-olds an emotional charge that is way beyond them," said Patrick Gonthier, general secretary of the UNSA-Education union.
It was not the first time Sarkozy had ruffled feathers at French schools. In his first act as president, he decided that all schools should commemorate Guy Moquet, a 17-year-old French Resistance fighter shot by a German firing squad. The story was meant to build national pride, but some teachers defied the order, saying the government was trying to twist history into propaganda.