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French film shakes up war vets' pay

Oscar-nominated `Days of Glory' shines a light on the plight of France's Muslim soldiers, whose WWII contributions were all but ignored.

February 16, 2007|Angela Doland | Associated Press

PARIS — A film about France's past has helped bring changes in the present.

"Days of Glory" -- up for nine prizes at France's Feb. 24 Cesar awards and nominated for best foreign-language film at the Oscars a day later -- tells the story of Muslim soldiers from France's North African colonies who risked their lives during World War II to free a country that treated them as second-class human beings.

For decades after the war, France continued to heap insult on its former colonial troops by giving them pensions that were a fraction of what French soldiers received.

But the popular movie put massive pressure on the government to act. In the past few weeks, veterans around the world have begun receiving checks with equal pay.

"This is what the film was for," director Rachid Bouchareb said, adding that it wasn't just the money. "What is important is the recognition that they were part of it."

Bouchareb still is trying to persuade the government to reimburse the veterans for the years they lost out.

It's hard to overstate the impact of the movie, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last May and opened in French theaters in September under a title with much more bite -- "Indigenes," or "Natives" in English. It opens today in the United States.

President Jacques Chirac watched an early screening. Though officials say he didn't make his decision based on the movie, Chirac announced the reform on the same day it debuted in theaters.

The film "shined a light on the right path to take," said former colonial veteran Mohamed Azzouzi in Morocco, where someone who once received $70 a year, for example, will now receive $636.

Tens of thousands of people from 23 countries are to benefit from the change that went into effect Jan. 1. The amount they receive is based on criteria such as whether they had war injuries.

France's African Army was formed in the 19th century, and colonial infantrymen fought in both world wars. An estimated 300,000 soldiers from French colonies in North and West Africa and Indochina fought in World War II.

By drawing attention to a little-known chapter of French history, the film gave many of France's minority youths a new reason for pride in their heritage.

The veterans "made the supreme sacrifice, they gave their lives for this country," said one of the movie's stars, Jamel Debbouze, who also co-produced the movie.

"For us, their grandchildren, it's so sad that we don't get more consideration and that people still ask us to integrate," said Debbouze, who's of Moroccan heritage. "Integration doesn't exist for me -- I was born here, I grew up here, why would I need to integrate?"

France's colonial past has complicated the country's attitude to immigration -- far-right politicians regularly blame immigrants for problems such as unemployment.

It has also strained France's relations with its minorities, an issue that came to the forefront during three weeks of riots in 2005 by disenchanted youth, largely Arab and black, in neglected housing projects nationwide.

Any depiction of colonial history is still sensitive here. In 2005, parliament passed a law requiring schoolbooks to highlight the "positive role" of French colonialism.

The term was later stripped from the legislation, but the embarrassment remained.

With that backdrop, "Days of Glory" was a political thunderbolt. It has even subtly influenced the way politicians are talking about immigration and integration in the run-up to France's presidential election.

The leading conservative candidate, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, paid homage to the colonial troops this month in a speech. And the Socialist candidate, Segolene Royal, said in a campaign speech: "I want a France that recognizes -- as its legitimate children -- everyone whose family came from elsewhere, who are today full-fledged French citizens, and whose parents and grandparents gave their lives for our freedoms."

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