Movie Honors the African Soldiers France Tried to Forget

From right, President Alassane Ouattara of Ivory Coast, President Emmanuel Macron of France and President Alpha Condé of Guinea at a 2019 event to honor the World War II landings in Provence.Credit Eric Gaillard

With more than one million viewers in its first month in theaters, a movie called “Tirailleurs,” or “Riflemen,” has touched a nerve in France by bringing attention to a neglected aspect of the nation’s history: the decisive role played in two World Wars by African soldiers, many forcibly conscripted in French colonies….

In scenes of mist, mire and mayhem, countless lives are lost for the gain of a few hundred yards or a single hill. The grotesqueness of the sacrifice seems compounded for the Africans dragooned into fighting somebody else’s war. From 1914 to 1918, more than 30,000 of the “tirailleurs,” as they were known, were killed….

For more than a century, from 1857 to 1960, soldiers from Senegal, as well as from Algeria, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Tunisia and elsewhere in Africa, fought for France in colonial wars in Africa, in the trenches of World War I, in the World War II campaign to defeat the Nazis and in wars in Indochina and Algeria.

That history was long repressed. Official disinterest, obfuscation, dismissiveness and stereotyping, tinged with apparent racism, accompanied the story of France’s Black soldiers to the point that it was only on the day of the release of the movie that the French authorities acted to remove a last small humiliation inflicted on the tirailleurs.

The government announced that 37 survivors, men mostly in their 90s who had fought in French wars in Indochina and Algeria, would no longer be obliged to spend six months a year in France — usually in rudimentary hostels — to receive their pensions. They could be with their families in Africa as much as they wished….

Soon after the liberation of France began in June 1944 with the Normandy landings, another landing took place in the south of the country that has earned little of the renown or recognition accorded the heroes of D-Day, even though it would prove critical to the Allied victory.

On Aug. 15, 1944, and in the following days, some 370,000 Allied troops stormed ashore in Provence, near the town of Saint-Raphaël, many of them Africans, most of them conscripted in French colonies — as had happened during World War I.

These were the troops who, alongside American, British and Canadian forces, as well as French fighters from the Resistance, liberated southern cities such as Marseille and Toulon before moving northward. Yet their contribution has scarcely been celebrated….

Mr. Macron duly made a major speech at Saint-Raphaël on Aug. 15, 2019, noting that the landing on that date 75 years earlier had been “the second act of our liberation” and that “the very great majority” of the army that liberated France “came from Africa….” He asked: “Who among you remembers their names or their faces?”

Mr. Fargettas, the historian, said that among the worst forms of mistreatment of African soldiers came in 1944 in what he called “the whitening” of the army as it moved north from the Provence landing.

“The tirailleurs were forced to give their uniform to young resistance fighters,” he said. “Some were even obliged to wear German uniforms.” So was the myth consolidated that France’s army of liberation was all white….

The hard lines of French history may be shifting. De Gaulle liberated France. So did the African dead in Menton and Thiaroye. The French Army was not white. It was whitened.

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