By Lisa Vives
A check may soon be on its way for some of the last surviving African soldiers who fought in French wars around the world but were forced to live in France six months of the year in order to qualify for the pensions they were owed.
As a result of the six-month rule, many retirees could not spend their last days in Africa with their wives and children. With the regulation now to be lifted, they will continue receiving their pension payment even if they move away permanently.
The decision on the long-awaited pensions was confirmed on January 4.
“After long years of fighting, we finally won,” Aïssata Seck, president of the Association for the Defense of Senegalese Tirailleurs’ Rights (Senegalese Riflemen), tweeted.
According to Seck, there are currently less than 80 living tirailleurs. All of them are very old, with the youngest of them aged 90. A dozen live in separate rooms in a home in the Paris suburb of Bondy, where Seck serves as an elected official.
The decision, applying a “principal of tolerance” for the veterans, will be formalized in a government letter to be published in coming days.
Meanwhile, a new film featuring Omar Sy, best known for the Netflix crime series “Lupin”, highlights the forgotten heroism of African riflemen from France’s former colonies who fought in the frontline trenches of the first world war.
Inspired by the true stories of 200,000 men drafted from French colonies, the work has personal resonance for the actor who was born and raised in France by parents of Mauritanian and Senegalese origins.
Tackling the film’s anti-war theme, the magazine Le Parisienne asked Sy whether he found the current conflict in Ukraine upsetting.
Sy replied that Ukraine had not been “a crazy revelation” and that other conflicts taking place further afield had already touched him in equal measure.
“A war is a dark shadow over humanity, even when it’s on the other side of the world. We remember that man is capable of invading, of attacking civilians and children. It feels like we had to wait for Ukraine for us to wake up to this.”
“When it’s far away, they say over there, they’re savages, we’re no longer like that. It’s like at the beginning of Covid, when people said, It’s only the Chinese.”
At the Cannes film festival last year, director Mathieu Vadepied said the film aimed to rectify France’s failure to recognize the riflemen and tell their story.
In Senegal, the head of the National Office for Veterans and Victims of War said the decision was overdue.
“For a long time, veterans have asked to return with their pensions but were not successful. This decision will relieve them. These veterans live alone, they live in extremely difficult conditions,” said Capt. Ngor Sarr.
Sarr, 85, fought for the French military in Algeria and Mauritania and then moved to France in 1993 so he could receive his pension. He said he then lost it when he returned to Senegal 20 years later.
“Many soldiers died, they didn’t get this opportunity despite the role they played in liberating France,” said Mamadou Lamine Thiam. His father also fought in Algeria and died in 2015, aged 85.