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African leaders join Macron at commemoration of WWII landings in Provence

Eric Gaillard, AFP | French President Emmanuel Macron flanked by Guinean President Alpha Condé, Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara and former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, on August 15, 2019.

President Emmanuel Macron saluted Thursday a French army "that emerged from the shadows and exile" during the Allied landings on the Mediterranean coast 75 years ago and the sacrifices by fighters from France's former colonies in Africa.

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"The glory of all these soldiers of the Liberation is immense, and our gratitude must never fade. We will never forget anything, nor anyone," Macron told veterans at the Boulouris national cemetery in Saint-Raphael.

He was joined by the presidents of Guinea and Ivory Coast, Alpha Condé and Alassane Ouattara, for a ceremony marking the 1944 operation which saw French forces take a lead role in freeing their country from Nazi Germany's grip.

Only a handful of French soldiers had taken part in the Normandy landings a few weeks earlier, which for decades overshadowed the Provence landings that were nonetheless crucial in turning the war's tide.

The offensive included the remnants of France's free forces as well as thousands of soldiers from its African colonies.

"For decades these African fighters did not have the glory and the esteem they deserved for their bravery," Macron said, adding that through their spilled blood, "France has a part of Africa in it."

He urged the mayors of towns and cities to name streets and public squares in honour of soldiers from Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco as well as West Africa.

"These men make all of Africa proud, and express the essence of France: a commitment, a love of liberty and greatness, a spirit of resistance united by courage," Macron said.

Condé also lauded the "shared memory of the French and African people," saying that without the sacrifice of the colonial fighters, "humanity would not be able to keep fighting for peace."

'Nancy has a stiff neck'

Besides accelerating the German retreat, the Mediterranean landings were hugely symbolic for a French nation eager to emphasise its role in its own liberation.

"After the humiliating defeat of 1940, seeing a French army free national territory showed the entire world that France has the ability to fight with an established army," said Florimond Calendini, director of the national memorial of the landings, in Toulon.

Some 450,000 Allied soldiers using more than 2,000 ships took part in Operation Dragoon, including 250,000 French fighters, with most of the rest from the US.

The French launched the assault shortly after midnight on August 15 by scrabbling up the rocky cliffs at Cap Negre, named for the rock's dark colour.

Resistance fighters in the south had been alerted to the impending offensive the night before, when underground radio sent a series of coded messages using seemingly anodine phrases such as "Nancy has a stiff neck."

As during the Normandy landings, locals would play a key role in harassing German forces as they fell back, helping the Allied soldiers to advance must faster than in the north.

Hitler ordered a retreat from southern France as soon as August 17, except for the strategic ports of Toulon and Marseille, but these fell within 10 days.

"In less than two weeks, all of Provence was liberated. It was a huge surprise for the Allies," Calendini said.

Overlooked legacy

At the time, France's "Army B" consisted of nearly 600,000 men, two-thirds of them from African garrisons in countries still under French colonial rule.

The force included around 233,000 "Muslims", as they were referred to at the time -- including Moroccan battalions and infantry sections from Algeria, as well as fighters from Senegal and other West African colonies.

There were also so-called Marsouins ("porpoises"), recruits from France's territories in the Pacific or the Caribbean.

African troops in particular paid a heavy price, with 55,000 killed over the course of World War II.

Yet for years their sacrifices were largely overlooked by most French, and in 1959 the government added injury to the insult by capping their military pensions as African nations gained their independence.

France finally agreed in 2002 to increase the payouts to partially make up for the veterans' lost spending power over the subsequent decades -- though they were still far below those of French ex-soldiers.

Pressure continued to mount until then president Nicolas Sarkozy announced in 2010 that pensions would be the same for all its veterans, regardless of nationality or place of residence.

Sarkozy was the only former French head of state to attend the ceremony Thursday at Boulouris.

(AFP)

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