War film exposes hidden chapter of discrimination in French history

 

FRANCE: Following a screening of 'Indigènes' Jacques Chirac decreed Arab and African veterans w ould receive equal pensions, writes Lara Marlowe, in Paris.

In Rachid Bouchareb's magnificent new film Indigènes, a French colonel in command of Arab and black African soldiers from the colonies refers to his "indigenous" troops. "Don't call them that, Sir," pleads the pied-noir (north African of European origin) sergeant in charge of the unit.

"Muslim soldiers," the colonel corrects himself. "Don't call them that either," the sergeant persists. "So what should I call them?" asks the increasingly annoyed colonel. "Call them men, Sir," replies the sergeant.

Indigènes follows four Arab infantrymen from their recruitment in the north African bled (backlands) in 1943 to the battle of Monte Cassino, Provence and Alsace. When the film was shown last month at the Toronto film festival, critics compared it to a Hollywood movie. The battle scenes are incredibly realistic; the plot moves quickly.

More than 300,000 Arabs and Africans fought for France in the second World War; tens of thousands were killed. The colonial army had been fighting France's wars for more than a century, since the zouaves (Algerian Kabyles), were created in 1830.

Moroccan spahis, Senegalese tirailleurs and Saharan méharistes and goumiers followed, fighting in two World Wars. In 1916, 70,000 Muslim infantrymen died for France in the Battle of Verdun alone.

But until the five male leads in Bouchareb's film won a joint award for best actor at this year's Cannes Film Festival, the sacrifice of Arab and African soldiers was largely forgotten.

Amnesia affected indigènes and French alike. For many of the colonised, having fought to save France, was a source of embarrassment. And the French put far more emphasis on the Normandy landings than the August 1944 landing in Provence by the Army of Africa. At the beginning of 1945, Gen Charles de Gaulle cashiered 20,000 tirailleurs Sénégalais with the express purpose of "whitening" the French army. Director Rachid Bouchareb, the son of Algerian immigrants, spent many years researching Indigènes, his fifth feature film.

It chronicles the discrimination suffered by "indigenous" troops: inferior rations, lower pay, no leave, the near impossibility of promotion.

In a particularly enraging moment, French soldiers finally arrive in an Alsatian village that north African troops have defended against the Germans, at a great cost in lives.

Abdel Kader, brilliantly played by Sami Bouajila, is not allowed to speak to the colonel who promised him a promotion. A camera crew films white soldiers being greeted by villagers whose liberation is unfairly attributed to them.

Bouchareb based every incident in the film on archive material. "I have photographs of [ French] officers watching through binoculars as the indigenous infantry are massacred, of sandals in the snow - the French relied totally on the American army for supplies, and shoes for Moroccan goumiers were not a high priority," he told Libération newspaper.

In a turning point, Abdel Kader stamps a crate of tomatoes to a pulp after Arab soldiers are told they're reserved for Frenchmen. It really happened, Bouchareb says. Likewise, when Messaoud (Roschdy Zem) exchanges love letters with Irène, the white Frenchwoman he met in Provence, military censors destroy their outpourings, for the sake of the post-war social order. Discrimination continued in peacetime. In 1959, the French government froze pensions for non-French soldiers in the colonial army. An African veteran who sued the French government died before the Council of State ruled in 2001 that non-French veterans should receive equal pensions.

But when the Jospin government realised the price of justice for veterans would be €1.83 billion, it opted to pay "equitable" rather than "equal" pensions - indexed to prices where the soldiers were living.

At present, a French veteran receives €690 per month, a Senegalese €230, a native of Cameroun €140 and a Moroccan or Tunisian €61.

President Jacques Chirac and his wife Bernadette attended a private showing of Indigènes, after which Ms Chirac reportedly told her husband, "Jacques, you have to do something!" As the film opened in 500 cinemas across France last week, the government announced that henceforward, 80,000 surviving Arab and African second World War veterans will receive equal pensions. The questions of benefits for widows and retroactive payments have not been resolved.

Nearly a year after France's immigrant suburbs erupted in weeks of race riots, they are still explosive. But Indigènes has added a new, positive twist to the desperate situation of the banlieues. For one thing, Jamel Debbouze, the best known star in the film, is stunning proof that minorities can succeed in France. He is the son of Moroccan immigrants - a cleaning lady and a sweeper in the Paris metro.

Debbouze dropped out of school at 14, is only 1.65 metres tall, weighs 50 kilos and has a gimpy right arm from an accident on the train tracks. But he became a successful comic, then moved on to the cinema with the hugely successful Amélie and Astérix and Obélix. Now he's the highest-paid actor in France, and a friend of King Mohamed VI of Morocco.

When Indigènes was released, the Nouvel Observateur, France's leading weekly, put Debbouze on its cover, against the background of a French tricolour, with the headline "Why I love France." Now a multi-millionaire, Debbouze helped finance Indigènes.

Through Bouchareb's research, he learned that his grandfather fought with the French army. He says the film is about reconciliation, not recrimination. "You must understand that you have a shared history with France," he recently told a young cinema audience in a Paris banlieue. "You are legitimate in this country, whether you're black, brown, yellow . . ."