African war veterans win lengthy battle against France for full pension rights

Senegalese shooters in 2014 in Dakar during a WWI commemoration ceremony
Senegalese shooters in 2014 in Dakar during a WWI commemoration ceremony   -   Copyright  AFP PHOTO / SEYLLOU SEYLLOU / AFP
By Heloise Urvoy

African soldiers who fought for France during 20th century wars can now live in their home-countries all year long, and still get their French retirement benefits. 

Until now, they had to reside in France at least six months per year. The long-awaited decision by French authorities coincides with the release date of 'Father and Soldier', a movie starring Omar Sy on the fate of Senegalese shooters fighting for France during WWI.

Veterans and their families have welcomed the decision, following years of battle with French authorities. Now retired, the Senegalese, Mauritanian or Malian men concerned by the decision were born under French colonisation. Their countries were also under French rule when an approximated 220,000 of them were recruited to fight for France in World War II, the First Indochina War or the Algerian War.

As most former African colonies and territories gained their independence in the 1960’s, French authorities have since then decided that those former soldiers are foreigners – even if they were born under French rule and fought for France. As such, the obligation to live in France at least six months a year to receive their pension applied to them.

Speaking to French media Franceinfo, Senegalese national Yoro Diao said he ‘wholeheartedly served for the French army’ in the Indochinese and Algerian wars. 

However, the 91-year-old veteran who lives 6 months a year in a small room near Paris is looking forward to go back home permanently and recover his joie de vivre, as he says living alone far from his relatives half of the time is depressing.

New movie depicts harsh treatment of African soldiers

Father & Soldier official trailer

The unfairness of the fate of African soldiers who fought for France is the main topic of 'Father and Soldier', starring 'Lupin' star Omar Sy. 

The French actor plays a Senegalese father who volunteers to fight under French uniform after his own son is drafted by force by the French army in 1917. The duo is sent to fight in the French tranches, where the conditions they encounter are even harsher than those of their French peers because of their country of birth.

Like them, 200,000 were sent to France in 1914-1918. A French particularity, as no other colonial power unrolled soldiers in Africa to send them to Europe at the time.

VALERY HACHE/AFP
French actor and director Omar Sy and his wife Helene Sy on Cannes Film Festival red carpet in 2022VALERY HACHE/AFP

Until decolonisation, every African soldier fighting for France were known as Tirailleurs sénégalais, or ‘Senegalese shooters’, as the first African infantry was created in Senegal under Napoleon III.

The racist bias faced by African soldiers fighting for France has since long been documented. They were first to be sent to the frontline in ‘_Black Horror on the Rhine_’, an interwar period racist propaganda piece from Germany. The film accuses African soldiers of sex crimes.  In real life, dozens were massacred by the French army in Dakar in 1944 when Senegalese soldiers demanded to be paid for their service in France.

France wasn't the only European country to recruit among its colonies: The Netherlands formed the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army, known as KNIL, in the early 19th century. The largest European colonial empire, Great Britain, also recruited Nepalese soldiers after the 1816 Anglo-Nepalese War. They would become known as the Nepalese Gurkha soldiers - or Gurkhas - and still fight for the British to this day. 

Like the Senegalese shooters who fought for France, the Gurkhas also fought to obtain the same rights as British soldiers. They won some partial victories in the 2010's, but rounds of talks are still ongoing over military pensions.

The recent French landmark decision on African veterans' pensions illustrates the ongoing unequal treatment denounced in 'Father and Soldier'. So far the decision concerns 20 out of the 40 identified Tirailleurs sénégalais still alive. The files of the remaining veterans should soon be approved by French authorities.