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French, Malian presidents pay tribute to African WWI troops

French President Emmanuel Macron and Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita paid tribute together to the African soldiers who fought in World War I.  By PHILIPPE WOJAZER (POOL/AFP)

French President Emmanuel Macron and Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita paid tribute together to the African soldiers who fought in World War I. By PHILIPPE WOJAZER (POOL/AFP)

The presidents of France and Mali paid tribute Tuesday to the role played by African troops who fought for France during World War I.

French President Emmanuel Macron and Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita attended a ceremony in the French city of Reims in northeast France to pay joint tribute to the soldiers.

"Today, we honour heroes," said Keita, whose great-grandfather fought and died in the Battle of Verdun nearby and whose body was never found.

"The nearly 200,000 soldiers who fought day and night, who fought for France and for themselves too, for justice and liberty," he said.

These "implacable" fighters, he said, had given their blood for world peace.

Macron did not speak during the ceremony. But in a tweet posted Tuesday, he said that as well as the French soldiers, it was "the youth of the whole world who fell 100 years ago in villages whose names they did not know".

French President Emmanuel Macron and Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita together laid wreaths in memory of Africa's World War I soldiers.  By PHILIPPE WOJAZER (POOL/AFP) French President Emmanuel Macron and Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita together laid wreaths in memory of Africa's World War I soldiers. By PHILIPPE WOJAZER (POOL/AFP)

They included "200,000 African soldiers from the colonies".

The two presidents together laid wreaths at the Parc Champagne memorial and inaugurated a monument in memory of the African troops.

Tuesday's event was part of a series of ceremonies this week to mark the centenary of the end of the war.

The African troops were often referred to as "Senegalese tirailleurs", or riflemen, even though they were drawn from all over West Africa.

But France has long been accused of having neglected their contribution to the conflict.

Facing France's colonial past

The role of the estimated 200,000 African troops used by France remains one of many painful aspects of the country's colonial history, which left deep resentment in Africa.

Macron, the first French president born in the post-empire era, has continued efforts by his predecessors to gradually address the injustices of France's colonial rule, which he once called "a crime against humanity".

In September, he acknowledged abuses by French troops during Algeria's fight for independence, and he has expressed hopes for new relationships between Paris and its former colonies, so often weighed down by the burden of history.

The two leaders inaugurated this monument to African troops in WWI on Tuesday in Reims, which some observer say was long overdue.  By FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI (AFP) The two leaders inaugurated this monument to African troops in WWI on Tuesday in Reims, which some observer say was long overdue. By FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI (AFP)

"It's the first time we've seen a tribute at this level, what's more with an African head of state," French historian Julien Fargettas, an author of several books on colonial troops, told AFP.

The story of African troops in the Great War is mostly one of exploitation and suffering -- much like their European counterparts who were sent to die in droves by commanders on the Western front.

But most Africans were forcibly recruited when French tactics turned coercive in 1915 and 1916 -- provoking local riots -- and then duplicitous from 1917 when men were promised benefits that never materialised.

Africans were also pressed into action on their own continent by France, Britain and Germany as the European powers fought over dominions carved out at a notorious 1885 conference in Berlin.

'Unequal treatment'

For those sent to France, once they had survived the journey by boat, they were then thrown into a war they neither understood nor were prepared for.

"You need to imagine the shock for men who had come from some of the most remote areas of Africa who are then thrown into a modern, industrial war in the West," Fargettas said.

Combat mortality rates were a subject of controversy for years, but Fargettas says there is no evidence to confirm the idea that they were "cannon fodder". Around 22 to 25 percent died, he says, comparable to the level for Europeans.

Tuesday's ceremony, during which French President Emmanuel Macron visited the cemetery by the Ossuary of Douaumont near Verdun, was part of a week of events marking the centenary of the end of World War I.  By Francois Mori (POOL/AFP) Tuesday's ceremony, during which French President Emmanuel Macron visited the cemetery by the Ossuary of Douaumont near Verdun, was part of a week of events marking the centenary of the end of World War I. By Francois Mori (POOL/AFP)

But off the battlefield, thousands more perished in the numbing cold of European winters or from a range of illnesses that their immune systems were unprepared for.

Mor Ndao, a history professor at the University of Cheikh Anta Diop in the Senegalese capital Dakar, said he believes France has never "recognised sufficiently the role and importance of the tirailleurs".

"Their treatment has been unequal compared to their French and European brothers in arms," he said.

What continues to rankle is the issue of military pensions -- which were much lower for African fighters and unadjusted for decades -- as well as passports, which were often promised but rarely delivered.

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