Equal pay for French colonial veterans

France decreed Wednesday that overseas veterans will soon get the same pensions as their French peers.

Behind the crinkly eyes of the two Senegalese octogenarians lies a story of bravery that soured into betrayal.

Issa Cisse helped free France from the clutches of the Nazis at the end of World War II. Serigne Niang braved the swamps and jungles of Vietnam to help his colonial masters defend their empire. But for the last 40 years they have only been entitled to a third of the pension that their French comrades received.

"I remember wading through rivers, the water up to my chest and trekking through jungles that were so thick you couldn't even see the sun. The Viet Minh were unrelenting fighters, they seemed to be everywhere," Mr. Niang recalled.

Sitting on a mat in the yard of his house in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, his grandchildren clambering all over his lilac-colored boubou robe, he proudly shows off a black-and-white photo of himself in military uniform, taken just before he went into combat and left Senegal for the very first time.

"We thought of ourselves as French when we went into battle. I had friends who lost their lives for France," he says. "But then they suddenly ripped it away from us and said no, you're not the same."

Almost 1 million soldiers from around France's colonial empire served in the French Army during the 20th century. An estimated 100,000 lost their lives. But overseas veterans had their pensions frozen in 1959 by President Charles de Gaulle when France was giving independence to its colonies. That meant that while an invalid French veteran pocketed €690 ($876) last month, his Senegalese counterpart received just €230 ($292).

Unequal pay for overseas fighters of colonial powers is a familiar story. For years, Britain's famed "Gurkha" soldiers from Nepal – who get only a fraction of the pensions of their British counterparts – have been lobbying unsuccessfully for equal pay.

Decades later, justice comes

But this week, almost four decades later, President Jacques Chirac finally decreed that veterans from former colonies should get the same as their French peers. "It is a question of solidarity, justice, and recognition," Mr. Chirac said in a statement. "We owe it to these men who have paid with their blood."

The new measure, which will come into force starting in January, affects about 80,000 people from some 23 countries and is set to cost France around $140 million a year.

Chirac's announcement on Wednesday coincided with the release of the film "Indigenes" (Days of Glory), which tells the tale of a group of friends from Africa helping to free France from the grip of the Nazis. French media reports have said that Chirac and his wife, Bernadette, were so moved by the movie that they were spurred into action.

That grates just a little with Senegalese veterans like Mr. Cisse, the 85-year-old head of a group of Dakar's World War II fighters, who has been campaigning for years for parity.

Cisse is one of the "Tirailleurs Senegalais," a military wing that was the brainchild of Napoleon III back in 1857. The idea was that African infantrymen would help France's colonial forces keep order and conquer new territory in places plagued by malaria and dysentery where many European soldiers could not cope. But in 1944, the "Tirailleurs Senegalais" found themselves called on to fight on French soil to defend France.

Cisse was part of the Provence invasion in August 1944 that followed the Allied D-Day landings in Normandy. August 23 – the date when he and his comrades entered the French town of Toulon – has become an annual day of commemoration in Senegal.

Too little, too late for many

Cisse remains skeptical about this week's promise from the French government, and even if the cash does arrive, he doesn't think it is enough.

"There's no back payments for all the years we've had to scrape by. If they'd done this years ago our lives and those of our children would have been so different. And it's too late for those who are already dead, and there are many of them," he says.

It is a subject where nerves are clearly still raw. And a newly painted wall mural in the center of town offers a reminder that even if Senegalese pensions are brought into line with the French, there is one wartime injustice that can never be undone.

On Dec. 1, 1944 Senegalese fighters returning from the battlefields of France were garrisoned in a camp just outside Dakar, protesting because they had not received the compensation they'd been promised. In the middle of the night French soldiers opened fire, massacring them as they slept.

Against a bright turquoise backdrop, the African fighters on the mural stand proudly in their red and black uniforms, rifles upright. And in red paint that has been allowed to run so it looks like dripping blood, the message is clear – "A story that should never be forgotten."

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