Thu, Nov 08, 2018 - Page 7 News List

France, Mali honor African WWI soldiers

AFP, REIMS, France

French President Emmanuel Macron, second right, and Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, second left, on Tuesday lay a wreath as they attend a ceremony at the Parc de Champagne in Reims, France.

Photo: EPA-EFE

The presidents of France and Mali on Tuesday paid tribute to the role played by African troops who fought for France during World War I.

French President Emmanuel Macron and Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita attended a ceremony in Reims to pay joint tribute to the soldiers.

“Today, we honor heroes,” said Keita, whose great-grandfather fought and died in the Battle of Verdun nearby and whose body was never found.

“The nearly 200,000 soldiers who fought day and night, who fought for France and for themselves too, for justice and liberty,” he said.

These “implacable” fighters had given their blood for world peace, he said.

Macron did not speak during the ceremony, but in a tweet on Tuesday, he said that as well as the French soldiers, it was “the youth of the whole world who fell 100 years ago in villages whose names they did not know.”

They included “200,000 African soldiers from the colonies,” he said.

The two presidents together laid wreaths at the Parc Champagne memorial and inaugurated a monument in memory of the African troops.

The event was part of a series of ceremonies this week to mark the centenary of the end of the war.

The African troops were often referred to as “Senegalese tirailleurs,” or riflemen, even though they were drawn from all over West Africa.

However, France has long been accused of having neglected their contribution to the conflict.

The role of the estimated 200,000 African troops used by France remains one of many painful aspects of the nation’s colonial history, which left deep resentment in Africa.

Macron, the first French president born in the post-empire era, has continued efforts by his predecessors to gradually address the injustices of France’s colonial rule, which he once called “a crime against humanity.”

In September, he acknowledged abuses by French troops during Algeria’s fight for independence, and has expressed hopes for new relationships between Paris and its former colonies, so often weighed down by the burden of history.

“It’s the first time we’ve seen a tribute at this level, what’s more with an African head of state,” said French historian Julien Fargettas, an author of several books on colonial troops.

The story of African troops in the Great War is mostly one of exploitation and suffering — much like their European counterparts, who were sent to die in droves by commanders on the Western front.

Most Africans were forcibly recruited when French tactics turned coercive in 1915 and 1916 — provoking local riots — and then duplicitous from 1917, when men were promised benefits that never materialized.

Africans were also pressed into action on their own continent by France, Britain and Germany, as the European powers fought over dominions carved out at a notorious 1885 conference in Berlin.

For those sent to France, once they had survived the journey by boat, they were then thrown into a war they neither understood nor were prepared for.

“You need to imagine the shock for men who had come from some of the most remote areas of Africa who are then thrown into a modern, industrial war in the West,” Fargettas said.

Combat mortality rates were a subject of controversy for years, but Fargettas said there is no evidence to confirm the idea that they were “cannon fodder.”

About 22 to 25 percent died, comparable to the level for Europeans, he said.

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