Movie shames French government into awarding pensions withheld for 47 years to colonial troops

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Rarely has art had such an immediate effect on policy as it did in France last week. The war movie Indigènes — literally 'natives' — hit theaters with a tale of the 130,000 North African and other colonial troops who fought to liberate France from the Nazis in 1944. The same day the film was released, the government pledged that from next year African and Asian veterans will receive pensions equal to those of their French brothers-in-arms. As a result, the French government will end a 47-year freeze on pensions for 80,000 troops from its former colonies.

President Jacques Chirac, who attended an advance screening of the film, called the measure "an act of justice and recognition toward all those from France's former Empire who fought under our flag."

It's high time. Nearly a million colonial troops fought for France during the 20th century, but President Charles de Gaulle froze their pensions in 1959, as France's empire was crumbling. The argument was simple, says historian Benjamin Stora: "If they wanted independence, there was no reason to continue adjusting payments." Inflation dropped these pensions to levels 70% or more below the French average. In 2001 France's top administrative court ordered the state to equalize pensions, but the hikes were indexed to the lower cost of living in the former colonies.

Indigènes Indigènes changed that. "It is shocking that it took a film," says its director, Rachid Bouchareb (see full interview). "But that's the role of cinema." The 2007 measure will raise some 80,000 veterans' pensions to the French norm — around €430 a year for wartime service and €690 a month for disability.

Sergeant Mohammed Khaled, 82, who served 14 years in the French army and was awarded the Croix de Guerre for bravery under fire, eagerly awaits the change. He lives in a state-run residence with 13 other veterans in Gien, 150-km south of Paris, and collects a military pension of €71 a month. Khaled, born in Morocco, says while he's "too old" to hold a grudge against France, its pension policies have been unjust.

"We fought the war together with the French, elbow to elbow," he says. But Stora says any sense of reconciliation will remain fleeting unless followed up: "We need new social measures, cultural recognition, a revision of history books, and all that is a long process." True enough, but a fairer shake for Sergeant Khaled and his fellow veterans is a start.

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