A French deputy mayor of Senegalese origin is urging the country to grant citizenship to African troops who fought for France during World War II. According to the BBC, Aissatou Seck is calling for the French government to officially recognize the contribution of soldiers recruited from African colonies by granting them formal French citizenship. Seck started a petition one week ago that already has more than 40,000 signatories.
Many soldiers from France’s colonial territories in Africa and Asia served in the French army during World War I and II. The French called them the “Tirailleurs,” which literally translates to a “shooting skirmisher” or a “sharpshooter.” The name was apparently given in mock reference to the poor marksmanship of colonial recruits, many of whom were thrust into the thick of war with less than basic training.
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France’s treatment of its veterans of African origins has been a thorny subject for many decades. Tirailleurs soldiers were recruited from French colonies in Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and Senegal.
Many of the Tirailleurs were forcibly recruited but a number of them volunteered to fight.
In 1919, French colonial authorities passed the Conscription Law, which allowed for the conscription of soldiers in both peace and wartime. In Senegal alone, more than a third of all males of military age were mobilized and sent to France to fight.
During the First World War, more than 170,000 infantrymen from France’s West African colonies, with 30,000 of them losing their lives. In the Second World War, more than 200,000 African soldiers fought for France, with 25,000 killed in battle.
On Pambazuka News, political affairs and business consultant Dr. Gary K. Busch writes about the unfair and discriminatory treatment African soldiers received from the countries they fought for.
[French general and statesman Charles André Joseph Marie] de Gaulle saw that the Allies had pushed the Germans out of France [and] decided that it was too dangerous to continue to use African troops. He ordered a “whitening” of the troops by replacing 20,000 Africans who were in battle at the front with White French soldiers.
This caused hatred and dislike between the White and the Blacks. The Tirailleurs troops were segregated in French demobilizing centers waiting to go back home. While at the centers, these African soldiers faced discriminatory treatment. They barely got the food and resources they needed and did not have any kind of shelter.
The French refused to pay them the money they owed them and informed them that [since] they weren’t French, they would not be entitled to any pensions or benefits from their contribution to the liberation of France. They were then transported out of France to holding camps in Africa, near Dakar in Senegal.
According to Seck, while most of the Tirailleurs were sent back home after the war, about 1,000 of them still reside in France. Many of them don’t have proper national documentation and can’t enjoy the status or benefits of full citizenship. Until as recently as 2010, many veterans of African origin were not eligible to receive pension.