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Review of Native Sons: West African Veterans and France in the Twentieth Century


By Ineke van Kessel

Native Sons: West African Veterans and France in the Twentieth Century. Gregory Mann. Duke University Press, Durham, N.C. & London, 2006. pp. 344. ISBN 0-8223-3768-1 (pb).£14.95.

This elegantly written study of the complex pattern of ambiguous relationships between France and the West African veterans of the French army is as much about the present as the past. Although the subtitle refers to the 20th century, the author illustrates how notions of reciprocity, mutual obligation and a ‘blood debt’ feed not only into the controversy surrounding the veterans’ pensions but also into the current debate on immigration. Africans played an important part in protecting France during World War I and a vital role in the liberation of la Patrie in World War II. Roughly a quarter of all French casualties on WW II battlefields were North and West Africans.

Published in July 2006, Native Sons was launched just two months before the release of the movie Indigènes, which caused an unprecedented upsurge in French soul-searching about its colonial past. The story goes that, after a private showing in the Elysée, Madame Chirac urged her husband ‘to do something’ about the issue of veterans’ pensions. African army pensions had been frozen in 1959, on the eve of independence; and subsequent adjustments were haphazard at best and lagged behind increases granted in France itself. Back in 2001, the Council of State had ordered the French state to pay equal pensions to all war veterans, regardless of their current nationality. But implementation of this ruling had stalled time and time again. On the day that Indigènes was released, Chirac announced that the pensions of African soldiers who had fought in the French army would be brought in line with those of French veterans. Both the movie and its – largely French-born – North African cast have been touring the suburbs of larger French cities (les banlieues). The film provides powerful ammunition for contemporary claims in immigrant communities, particularly among the ‘sans-papiers’, who feel that France is ignoring its obligations towards its erstwhile colonial subjects. Spokesmen on behalf of North and West African immigrant communities insist on talking about a ‘blood debt’ that has yet to be repaid.

While Indigènes focuses on North African soldiers, the subjects of Gregory Mann’s book are the soldiers from West Africa, formerly known as the Tirailleurs Sénegalais. Native Sons cannot hope to have such a deep impact on public opinion in France but it does provide a detailed and carefully argued study to underpin current debates about the debts incurred by France in its recent colonial past. But beyond the history of French-African relationships, the author tells a more universal tale of absence and belonging, of migration and return, of loyalty and betrayal, of citizenship and nationhood.

The most compelling parts of the book are Chapters 1 and 2. Based on a wealth of archives and oral histories, Mann demonstrates how relationships predicated on slavery were recast in new patterns of dependency and patronage in the colonial army, with its concurrent language of mutual obligation and reciprocity. The point of departure is the town of San in Mali, home to a large number of Tirailleurs Sénegalais. The detailed story of the military and subsequent civilian careers of two brothers, Kérétigi Traore and Nianson Coulibaly, demonstrates how soldiers used the language of obligation and merit to further their social standing and political ambitions in their home communities.

In the following chapters, the story moves to France, then on to the Maghreb and South East Asia, and back again to West Africa and France. Through remittances and correspondence to fathers, brothers and wives, the soldiers have maintained a stake in family life and some measure of control over their domestic interests.

Towards the end of the book (p196), the author rightly raises the question about why – forty-odd years after independence – a political discourse about veterans’ entitlements continues to inflect discussions about the rights of West African immigrants in France’s Fifth Republic. He also asks what, if anything, this might tell us about empire and postcolonial politics. Unfortunately, no answer is forthcoming.

All European colonial powers made extensive use of ‘native soldiers’ in their colonial armies. Even if equal treatment of European and ‘native’ troops was practised during army service, this certainly did not extend to the payment of pensions and benefits to men who subsequently became nationals of newly independent states. Why then this soul-searching in France, while public opinion in former colonial powers such as Britain and the Netherlands remains untouched by the plight of their African or Asian veterans? The pensions of Gurkha soldiers are still far lower than those of British ex-servicemen. The Moluccan soldiers in the Dutch colonial army were dismissed from army service when they set foot on Dutch soil in 1949, and were sent away with humiliating social benefits rather than the pensions they were entitled to. To be sure, public opinion in Britain and the Netherlands did voice sentiments of a ‘debt of honour’ towards these veterans but these feelings were limited to these particular groups of ethnic soldiers who had built up a reputation of ‘loyalty over the centuries’. Veterans in Indonesia or in West or East Africa do not figure in these discussions, and links to the current debate on immigration issues are totally absent.

France was unique, no doubt, in that large contingents of West African and North African troops actually participated in the liberation of la Patrie, fighting and dying on French soil. The African and Asian troops in the British and Dutch colonial armies fought and died in distant parts of the empire. Which other elements could help explain the different attitude in France compared to that in other former colonial powers? The author points towards the peculiar characteristics of Mali as not only a post-colonial, but also a post-slavery society, with ingrained concepts of mutual obligation. This is an interesting perspective, but it has little relevance for the discussion in France itself, where no distinction is made between the claims of North African and West African veterans and immigrants.

Gregory Mann makes no attempt at a comparative perspective that could situate the French-African experience in the wider context of colonial and post-colonial ties. A comparative view would perhaps go some way to resolving the questions that Mann rightly poses. However, interesting books generally raise more questions that they can hope to answer, and Native Sons is no exception. It is an engaging and compelling history and it leaves the reader with some intriguing issues to chew on.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 69 (2007), pp. 75-78]

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