Fighting racism in France demands a lot more than renaming streets and squares
At a time when anti-racism campaigners the world over are calling for an end to the glorification of colonialism, France is refusing to tear down its statues. President Emmanuel Macron has insisted that depictions of historical figures linked to the worst injustices of imperialism will stay put. These include the prominent one outside the Paris parliament building of 17th century minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who helped write the “Code Noir” (Black Code) that regulated the slave trade.
“The Republic will not erase any trace or name from its history,” said Macron, as he explained how there would be no possibility of “denying who we are.”
Instead, the country’s sop to groups such as Black Lives Matter will be to rename streets and squares after 100 Africans who fought for France during the Second World War. There is a fundamental problem with this compromise, which is that we can guarantee that hardly anybody will have ever heard of any of those commemorated. Colonial soldiers who died in the two world wars are just like the dark-skinned victims of subsequent mass-casualty conflicts, including recent ones in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq — they are viewed as faceless statistics and not real people.
If you examine the plaques dotted around Paris recalling the city’s Liberation from Nazi rule in 1944, you will notice that Arab or Black African-sounding names are few and far between, to the point of being nonexistent. This is despite the fact that some 400,000 Second World War combatants in the French military came from the North African colonies of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, and more than 70,000 from Senegal and conquered areas of sub-Saharan Africa.
They became known as “Indigenes,” a word that signifies members of indigenous populations, rather than settler communities. Many of the Africans were used as cannon fodder in battles, and denied the respect and privileges of their white comrades. By the time France fell to the Germans in the summer of 1940, some 17,000 of its West African colonial troops, known as “Tirailleurs Senegalais,” had been massacred. If they surrendered to fanatical Nazi units, they could expect to be murdered, rather than being dealt with according to the Geneva Convention.
Toward the end of the war, close to half a million empire troops made up 80 percent of the Free French forces that landed on southern beaches two months after D-Day, during Operation Dragoon. They recaptured major cities such as Toulon and Marseille, and helped push the Germans out of France.
The fabled 2nd Armored Division that drove down from the Normandy beachhead in the north to Paris originally contained some 3,600 Algerians and Moroccans, and many more from African countries. Yet the photographs of troops marching down the Champs-Elysees after victory show rows of white faces. This is because Gen. Charles de Gaulle, the future president, wanted to give the false impression that indigenous (that word again) French had in fact liberated themselves.
The myth of a “whites only” Liberation was soon followed by the French authorities stripping many colonial troops of their uniforms and shipping them back across the Mediterranean to Africa. Those who were allowed to remain in France ended up in decrepit holding camps which eventually turned into mass housing estates, where they suffered discrimination in every department of their lives. Social security payments were minimal, and many lost their pensions completely following, for example, Senegal gaining independence from France in 1959.
Meanwhile, colonial attitudes persist and are institutionalized in well-supported political parties, such as the National Rally (RN) — the former National Front founded by the convicted racist and anti-Semite Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has also been accused of torturing prisoners during the Algerian War. The anti-immigrant agenda of the RN — now led by Le Pen’s daughter, Marine Le Pen — is grounded in resentment at France losing its colonies, especially Algeria, the “jewel in the crown” of the old empire. Nostalgia for the economic resources and prestige that came from France administering one of the wealthiest countries in Africa is accompanied by memories of a time when it provided a cheap and expendable supply of soldiers.
Colonial attitudes persist and are institutionalized in well-supported political parties, such as the National Rally.
Now, Genevieve Darrieussecq, a junior defense minister, has presented a 210-page booklet on the new tribute to these troops, saying: “The names, faces, and lives of these African heroes must become part of our lives as free citizens, because without them we would not be free.” If Darrieussecq really intends to start studying the careers of these service personnel, and publicizing them, she should be commended, but the reality is that this is likely to be little more than tokenism. Street markings are just that — they will not explain who these Africans were, let alone what they did.
More practical measures would include paying reparations to old soldiers and their families; not just the very few survivors from the Second World War, but also those who fought in places such as Korea and Vietnam. Just as importantly, a revision of History teaching to reflect the immense sacrifice of colonial soldiers is long overdue, as is an official apology for the way they were treated. This would help combat racism in a manner that a few new road signs will never do.
- Nabila Ramdani is a multi-award-winning French-Algerian journalist, columnist and broadcaster who specializes in French politics, Islamic affairs and the Arab world. Twitter: @NabilaRamdani