Hollande honours African role in France's WWI fight
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As France launched commemorations for next year's centenary anniversary of WWI, President François Hollande said Thursday that no soldier should be "forgotten" in recognition of the sacrifices made by African troops in the fight for France.
France launched the commemorations for next year's 100-year anniversary of the start of World War I on Thursday with a solemn speech by French President François Hollande at the Elysée presidential palace.
France’s leader has said that he wants the programme of commemorative events to unfold in a spirit of national unity, as well as friendship between the countries involved in the conflict that ravaged Europe from 1914 to 1918, causing nearly 1.7 million French deaths.
But according to Hollande, the commemoration will also be an opportunity to pay homage to all soldiers who fought for France, including those who hailed from what were then French colonies. “Today, I would like no French soldier who shed blood in battle to be forgotten,” he said in his address, singling out the 430,000 troops “who took part in a war that was not necessarily theirs”.
Indeed, certain historians and observers have voiced dismay at what they say has been a trivialisation of the role of such soldiers in the French collective memory of the war.
“African troops actively participated in World War I. Their contribution was crucial,” Charles Onana, a French journalist and essayist who has written widely on 20th century French and African history, told FRANCE 24. “But apart from the villages and rural regions where they were present on the ground, the larger French public isn’t necessarily aware of that. I’ve often been faced with high school and university students who knew nothing about these men’s engagement.”
‘The ultimate recognition is awareness’
France, then a colonial power, called on roughly 500,000 African men to fight alongside the 8 million soldiers from mainland France. Participating in what was referred to as the “colonial army” were 175,000 Algerians, 40,000 Moroccans, 80,000 Tunisians and 180,000 sub-Saharan Africans, or “Senegalese infantrymen”, as they were called.
Echoing Hollande’s statement that “the ultimate recognition is awareness”, Onana has called for more rigorous teaching of World War I history in French class rooms.
“The duty of remembrance must have an academic component, which consists of including the African contribution [to France’s World War I effort] in history text books,” the essayist said. “It’s important not just to mention, but to explain the history of these men in order to combat ignorance and reactionary behaviour. Young people would then know that during the war, there was solidarity between all soldiers and that no one paid attention to race differences.”
Reflecting on why France had been so slow to address this chapter of its past, Onana pointed to French squeamishness over its colonial history. “It’s a part of the French story that is ignored, because it is linked to colonialism, a subject that elicits discomfort whenever it is raised,” he assessed.
At a time when issues of integration and national identity have provoked fierce debate within the French political class, France would be better off talking about “the black-white-Arab [union]” that existed on the battlefield during World War I, Onana said. Such discussion could help “young French people [of colour] who are suffering identity crises and have a difficult relationship with the Republic”.
On Thursday, Hollande seemed to recognise that in his speech. “Commemorating means knowing where we come from to better understand what connects us as a nation, our nation. Commemorating means renewing patriotism, patriotism which unites, which brings people together, which transcends personal experience, views and beliefs, origins and skin colour," he said. "Commemorating does not just mean conjuring or evoking the past; it means delivering a message of confidence in our country.”