"Our Fathers Died For France"
At a recent ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the Allied invasion of southern France, President Emmanuel Macron paid homage to the ‘forgotten’ troops from various African states that fought in the French army during the Second World War.
“Without them, we would not be”, Macron said of the troops, at a military cemetery in the town of Saint-Raphaël. Macron encouraged local mayors to commemorate these troops by naming streets and squares after them, saying, “We can never forget their sacrifice.”
During the war, hundreds of thousands of troops came, often forcibly, from Senegal, Algeria, and many other parts of France’s colonial empire.
During their deployment, these soldiers often fared worse than white French troops in terms of rank, rations and casualties. While France fell early in the war, these soldiers were at a greater risk of death if captured by the Nazis.
As the battle to free France progressed, De Gaulle insisted that the liberation of Paris should be led by his forces (and not the Resistance). The Allies agreed on the basis that it be a ‘whites only’ operation – no small task given that most French army units at that time were comprised of over two-thirds black colonial soldiers.
This decision also meant that black and Arab troops were absent in the victory parades. One prominent black resistance fighter by the name of Georges Dukson was rewarded for his fighting by being kicked out of the victory parade at gunpoint.
So when De Gaulle said that France was "Liberated by herself, liberated by her people”, he ignored not only the role of Allied armies (and Pétainist collaborators), but also the actual composition of his army.
During the occupation of France, those black and Arab soldiers who were captured but not killed were separated from their white counterparts by their captors. One such group of around 1,000 soldiers, after surviving four years a German prisoner camp, De Gualle ordered to be sent from France to the await discharge in the Thiaroye base in Dakar, Senegal. When they protested about the wages still owed to them, the French army opened fire. The dead were buried in a mass grave.
Initial estimates placed the number killed at just 35, although with many more injured. Yet historian Armelle Mabon, who has worked for years to change the official history from one of a ‘mutiny’ (in which lethal force was justified) to a ‘massacre’, estimates that the true number killed could be closer to 300.
Dozens of the soldiers who survived the slaughter were later charged with mutiny and given sentences of up to ten years. While many were released (though not found innocent) under an amnesty law in 1947, three more would die in custody. At the time of their trial, their defence lawyer said that “It is a question of money that led the [French] military to shoot them down”.
It was not till the presidency of François Hollande, almost 70 years later, that France recognised this as a crime, calling it “an act of bloody repression” on a 2012 trip to Dakar.
Mabon, the historian, worked with cartoonists to retell the tale. One artist said that he, like many French, had been ignorant of the events. "Whereas when you go to Senegal and Dakar in particular, everyone knows this story,” he said. “It is really a gaping wound and continues to poison our relations with many African countries.”
For those African soldiers that survived the war, many were then expelled the country they had fought for. Later, their pensions were frozen as their countries of origin gained independence from France.
These were reinstated decades later, following a court case taken by one such veteran (he died before the 2001 ruling was handed down by the Council of State). Ever reluctant to pay their debts, it was only a partial reinstatement at a much lower level, with some receiving 90% less than their French counterparts.
After a private screening of ‘Days of Glory’, Rachid Bouchareb’s award-winning 2006 film on the subject, Bernadette Chirac persuaded her husband to ‘do something’. Full pensions were granted in 2010, though this was too late for many – including those who had campaigned for this.
“"We were colonised by the French. We were forced to go to war. Forced to follow the orders that said, do this, do that, and we did,” Senegalese soldier Issa Cisse told the BBC in 2009. “France has not been grateful. Not at all."
At the recent ceremony in St Rapheal, Macron stated that France’s “gratitude must be imperishable. We will not forget anything or anyone.” The blood shed on Provence soil meant “France has a part of Africa in her.”
The only former French president to attend the ceremony was Nicolas Sarkozy. ("I'm on vacation in the area, the least I can do is come” he told Le Monde.) While president, Sarkozy gave an infamous speech to an audience in Dakar, where he explained that while colonial France may have exploited and pillaged resources “they also gave…the colonials were not all thieves.” He went on to say, in front of students in increasing state of shock, that “The tragedy of Africa is that the African man has never really entered history …there is no place for human adventure nor for any idea of progress…”.
(Macron, in turn, has also kept up this legacy, for example blaming the continent’s post-colonial woes on ‘women having too many children’.)
The tension between France’s myth of ‘universal’ human rights and the reality of slavery, colonisation, and state racism clearly did not begin or end with the Second World War.
Nor did its end mark a break in the relationship between France and the countries and peoples it colonised. In the period after the war, colonial forces were still used in battle, often to suppress other nation’s quest for independence, from Algeria to Indochina. Today, France is involved in military operations in several ex-colonies, in which it still has economic and strategic interests.
While France did end formal political control of African colonies – either begrudgingly or bloodily – the neo-colonial Francafrique policies continued. One manifestation is the CFA franc, the currency of the French territories in Africa, still in use in a dozen former colonies and ties their economies to France.
In the decades that followed the liberation of Paris, many people from North Africa and other parts of the continent were invited to France to rebuild the country. Again, people faced repression rather than ‘gratitude’, and many pushed to the margins by state racism and harsh immigration controls.
This legacy of the war dead has been invoked by the undocumented migrant activists, such as the sans papiers movement in the 1990s, and more recently the gilets noirs – who are living under the repressive laws enacted by the same president who belatedly acknowledges the poor treatment of the dead.
At a recent protest, the gilets noirs called for these debts to be paid. “Our fathers died for France. And those who have died, are dead. Responsibility falls to the living, to those who are in power today.”
Luke Butterly is an Irish writer living in London.