50 years on, French Suez Vets still fighting for recognition

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On the 50th anniversary of the Franco-British airborne invasion of Egypt that is known as the Suez crisis, French veterans of the campaign are still pushing for official recognition from the state which they say has airbrushed them out of the history books.

Some 17,000 French servicemen were involved -- mostly at a distance -- in the failed offensive to seize the Suez canal back from Gamal Abdel Nasser, according to the Association of Veterans of Suez and Cyprus, but the government refuses to grant them the status of war veteran.

"The government says we were only 60 days in the war-zone -- so we don't qualify because the law says you have to be there 90 days to get social and pension rights as veterans," said the association's president Andre Painsecq, 72.

"But it is rubbish. Many of us were there for much more than 90 days -- and just after the crisis the defence minister even published a decree fixing the duration at 113 days. It is scandalous. Our British colleagues got far better treatment ," he said.

Enquiry at the ministry of veterans' affairs in Paris confirms that there is no record of those who took part.

Neither in France nor Britain is the Suez conflict a happy memory.

In 1956, following Nasser's nationalisation of the canal, Israel, France and Britain colluded in an elaborate plan under which Israel attacked Egypt, and France and Britain sent paratroopers to "separate the belligerents" but in practice to secure the waterway.

But the USSR threatened to intervene with nuclear weapons and US President Dwight D. Eisenhower refused to back Britain, leading to an abrupt end to the fighting after 10 days, withdrawal of foreign forces at the end of the year and the arrival of the first ever UN peacekeepers.

France and Britain had only a few dozen casualties, Israel around 200, and Egypt several thousand including 1,650 dead.

Widely seen as a fiasco, the crisis led to the resignation of British Prime Minister Anthony Eden, severely strained trans-Atlantic relations and undermined both France's and Britain's standing in the Arab world, where the invasion is still known as the "Tripartite Aggression".

But if in Britain the anniversary on October 29 is being marked by much historical comment and analysis -- as well as a three-part drama documentary on the BBC -- in France the forgotten servicemen reflect a general amnesia about a conflict that has all but slipped from the national consciousness.

"Perhaps in Britain people are more honest. They wanted the truth so they talked about what happened. After all even if it was a disaster, it is history. But here it is just forgotten," said Andre Jesupret, 71, who served an a mechanic on French aircraft in Cyprus.

The reasons for France's memory loss about Suez are various, according to historian Philippe Vial.

"In Britain Suez became the symbol of the end of the imperial destiny. It had huge resonance. But in France it was lost in the rush of events in the dying phase of the Fourth Republic," he said.

France joined the invasion just as its war in Algeria was intensifying. Indeed Paris's reason for wanting to topple Nasser was the belief he was aiding the Algerian rebellion. In early 1957 began the urban guerrilla war known as the battle of Algiers, and Suez disappeared from the headlines.

Another factor is that many of those involved in Suez -- for example defence minister Maurice Bourges-Maunoury -- disappeared from political history with Charles de Gaulle's Fifth Republic in 1958. "A generation of leaders simply vanished from the national memory," said Vial.

A third reason for official amnesia may be that Suez marked the high point of a close alliance between France and Israel, which could not be further at odds from Paris's current policy of engagement in the Arab world.

It was France in the 1950s that was Israel's main arms supplier -- providing Mirage jets as well as the technology for the Israeli nuclear programme.

"It is ironic because what everyone has forgotten is that France was much more gung-ho about Suez than the British were," said Vial.

"All the historical interpretation has come from the British side, so there's the impression that -- to quote the title of the BBC series -- this was a 'very British crisis'. But that is not accurate. It was a very French affair too," he said.

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