War film puts French racism in focus

France's discriminatory treatment of its former African subjects will be laid bare this week with the release of a new film set in World War II, which has already lit a fire under President Jacques Chirac.

    Half of France's war-time army came from colonised countries

    Days of Glory, Indigenes in France, tells the story of a band of Moroccans and Algerians who fight valiantly in the French army against the German forces, ultimately marching deep into France itself.

    As they progress, so does their realisation that they are unjustly seen as second-class soldiers by their white superiors, the first signs of a pervasive racism that has taken root and led to resentment and an "us and them" sentiment among North African immigrants in France today.

    Critics say the film itself, which is reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan in places, is flawed in its pursuit of cliches, but that its political message is powerful and topical enough to fill cinemas across the country.

    Emotionally charged

    The US film trade magazine Variety called it "emotionally charged though predictable", while the French newspaper Liberation said it was "a hugely effective militant film".

    First shown at the Cannes film festival in May this year - it picked up a collective best acting award for all five male leads - it has gone on to win attention at other festivals around the world.

    Chirac had a private viewing of
    the film early this month

    The film's French-Algerian director, Rachid Bouchareb, has said that the idea of the story had been floating around in his head for years, but that material documenting the North African recruits in the French army was difficult to find.

    "My principal aim was to understand my own past," he told Liberation. "What did our ancestors, of us, children of immigrants, experience under the [French] colonisation? What role did our grandparents and our parents play in the war and reconstruction of France?"


    For a France grappling with the aftermath of urban riots nearly a year ago, led by immigrant youths who feel no identification with society, the film will focus attention on the inequities and solutions being sought.

    It also highlights the disparity in pensions paid to French war veterans and to non-French who fought alongside them. The difference is significant: whereas a former French soldier can receive $875 a month, a Moroccan veteran gets less than one-tenth of that.

    Chirac, who had a private viewing of the film early this month, has promised to correct that situation, to push along a 2001 court ruling which ordered the French government to increase the pensions for non-French veterans.

    Already, in his Bastille Day address to the nation on July 14, he said he would reduce the inequality of the pensions, and the government is currently casting around for ways to find money to finance the move.


    According to historians, France's war-time army counted 550,000 soldiers, of which more than half came from colonised countries - including 134,000 Algerians, 73,000 Moroccans, 26,000 Tunisians and 92,000 from sub-Saharan Africa.

    One of the film's best-known actors, Jamel Debbouze, a French comic of Moroccan descent who notably featured in the hit film Amelie, was also co-producer.

    He told the weekend newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche that he hoped that the film would "finally burst the boil" and that through it, "the kids in the suburbs rediscover their identity".

    For the first time, he said, "they will see on the big screen heroes that look like them".



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