PARIS (AP) — Some of the last survivors in France from a colonial-era infantry corps that recruited tens of thousands of African soldiers to fight in French wars around the world will be able to live out their final days with family members back in Africa after a French government U-turn on their pension rights.
The decision to make claiming their pensions easier follows a years-long campaign on behalf of the “tirailleurs Sénégalais,” who were recruited to fight from Senegal and other former French colonies in sub-Saharan Africa.
It also coincides with the cinema release in France of a movie highlighting the sacrifices made by African soldiers on bloody French battlefields in World War I. “Tirailleurs” features actor Omar Sy, a star of the “Jurassic World” franchise.
To be eligible for their French pensions, veterans from the infantry corps founded in 1857 and disbanded a century later had to spend at least six months of the year living in France.
That rule separated ageing former combatants from their families in Africa and some died alone, away from loved ones, says Aïssata Seck, who campaigns for them. Her grandfather was also a “tirailleur.”
“It was extremely painful for the families and for us,” Seck said in a telephone interview Wednesday with The Associated Press. “They live for the most part in extremely different circumstances in France, away from their families.”
In all, 37 of the former tirailleurs — most of them recruited to fight from Senegal, as well as Mali, Mauritania and Guinea — are known to live in France, says Seck.
The youngest of them is aged 90, and a dozen live in separate rooms in a home in the Paris suburb of Bondy, where Seck serves as an elected official. They served as tirailleurs during wars for independence in Vietnam and Algeria, she said.
“They are gradually disappearing, because of their great age,” she said in the AP interview.
Many tens of thousands of African recruits served in tirailleur regiments, in colonial wars, in both World Wars, and in France’s Vietnam and Algeria wars before being disbanded in the early 1960s.
The pension decision concerns only 22 of the former soldiers who collect a 950-euro monthly payment (US$1,000), the government’s Solidarity Ministry told The AP.
They’ll no longer have to spend six months of the year in France to be eligible and will continue receiving their pension payments even if they move away permanently, the ministry said.
The decision, applying a “principal of tolerance” for the veterans, will be formalized in a government letter to be published in coming days, the ministry said.
“After long years of fighting, we have finally won,” Seck tweeted. “The former tirailleurs are going to be able to see out their lives in their countries of origin.”
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 in their homes, they are not accompanied, they live in extremely difficult conditions,” said the official, 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.
Others said the decision came too late.
“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.
AP journalists Sam Mednick and Babacar Dione in Dakar, Senegal, contributed.