PARIS — With more than one million viewers in its first month in theaters, a movie called “Tirailleurs,” or “Riflemen,” has touched a nerve in France by bringing attention to a neglected aspect of the nation’s history: the decisive role played in two World Wars by African soldiers, many forcibly conscripted in French colonies.
Heated debate and public soul searching has surrounded the movie. Much of the action unfolds during World War I in the cold, muddy trenches of northern and eastern France, a climate and a culture utterly foreign to the disoriented African conscripts who take orders from white officers. (In the United States, the movie’s title is “Father and Soldier.”)
In scenes of mist, mire and mayhem, countless lives are lost for the gain of a few hundred yards or a single hill. The grotesqueness of the sacrifice seems compounded for the Africans dragooned into fighting somebody else’s war. From 1914 to 1918, more than 30,000 of the “tirailleurs,” as they were known, were killed.
Released last month, the movie, directed by Mathieu Vadepied, stars Omar Sy, a French actor propelled to international fame through his leading role in “Lupin,” a Netflix thriller series.
Sy plays a Senegalese village farmer who enrolls voluntarily in the French forces to watch over a son, played by Alassane Diong, who is snatched from his sunlit rural home by France’s colonial army and made to fight in the war.
Rising from French trenches, father and son charge into no-man’s lands of shells and bullets — a form of attritional combat that Europe appeared to have banished before war returned to the continent a century later in the killing fields of eastern Ukraine.
For more than a century, from 1857 to 1960, soldiers from Senegal, as well as from Algeria, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Tunisia and elsewhere in Africa, fought for France in colonial wars in Africa, in the trenches of World War I, in the World War II campaign to defeat the Nazis and in wars in Indochina and Algeria.
That history was long repressed. Official disinterest, obfuscation, dismissiveness and stereotyping, tinged with apparent racism, accompanied the story of France’s Black soldiers to the point that it was only on the day of the release of the movie that the French authorities acted to remove a last small humiliation inflicted on the tirailleurs.
The government announced that 37 survivors, men mostly in their 90s who had fought in French wars in Indochina and Algeria, would no longer be obliged to spend six months a year in France — usually in rudimentary hostels — to receive their pensions. They could be with their families in Africa as much as they wished.
Asked on French TV about the timing of this concession, Sy, who is of Senegalese-Mauritanian origin and grew up in France, deadpanned: “You know, coincidences do exist.”
As a Black man now living in the United States, Sy is a natural target for the extreme nationalist right in France. Last month, as the movie was released, he was widely vilified for having the temerity to suggest that Europeans were more sensitive to wars in Europe than in Africa.
“The showbiz starlet Omar Sy tries to lecture us when he has never been interested in the wars in Africa,” Julien Odoul, a lawmaker from Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party, said. “We wish he would either be a little more coherent or just simply shut up.”
The movie, as Sy made clear at the Cannes Film Festival last year, is one of particular importance to him. “We don’t have the same memory, but we share the same history,” he said.
By telling the story through a fictionalized filial relationship, and locating the initial part of the movie in Senegal, Vadepied, the director, contrives to personalize the war’s horror for the African conscripts. Their flailing attempts to adjust to the unimaginable is palpable and poignant.
“The film is very important because it has already contributed enormously to awareness of this history,” said Julien Fargettas, a French Army veteran and historian.
“Consciously or unconsciously, we repressed this colonial past,” he added. “But the fact is, if these African riflemen had not been there in World War II, France would not have been liberated. That cannot be denied.”
Soon after the liberation of France began in June 1944 with the Normandy landings, another landing took place in the south of the country that has earned little of the renown or recognition accorded the heroes of D-Day, even though it would prove critical to the Allied victory.
On Aug. 15, 1944, and in the following days, some 370,000 Allied troops stormed ashore in Provence, near the town of Saint-Raphaël, many of them Africans, most of them conscripted in French colonies — as had happened during World War I.
These were the troops who, alongside American, British and Canadian forces, as well as French fighters from the Resistance, liberated southern cities such as Marseille and Toulon before moving northward. Yet their contribution has scarcely been celebrated.
One of the leading campaigners to align history, which is based on facts, and memory, which is selective, has been Aïssata Seck, 39, granddaughter of one of the tirailleurs. An elected official in the hardscrabble Seine-Saint-Denis area north of Paris, she said that she had been moved by encounters with the neglected veterans, often living in appalling conditions, to embark on a decade-long campaign to restore their dignity.
“There has been a form of racism and denial and ignorance that I could not accept,” she said in an interview. “The movie constitutes a decisive step in spreading awareness because more than a million people have already seen it. Teachers will be able to use it.”
Seck prodded François Hollande, then the president, to naturalize 28 of the African riflemen in 2017. A presidential statement at the time said that it was time for “recognition of the courage” of the tirailleurs who had fought for France.
But recognition hardly flowed. It was Seck again in 2019, on the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings, who pushed for some equivalent recognition of the Provence landing.
“I called the Élysée several times,” she said, referring to the official residence of the French president. “I discovered that nothing was planned. Nothing.” She added that she had been forced to “publicly exhort” President Emmanuel Macron to hold a commemoration.
Seck was behind a collective letter from historians, journalists and others that was published in the newspaper Le Monde on July 5, 2019, saying that the Provence landing had long been “whitened.”
It was time, the letter’s authors wrote, to face history and overcome forgetfulness. As the letter noted, of the 235,000 members of the French Army who participated in the Provence landing, some 90 percent were “colonial troops.”
Mr. Macron duly made a major speech at Saint-Raphaël on Aug. 15, 2019, noting that the landing on that date 75 years earlier had been “the second act of our liberation” and that “the very great majority” of the army that liberated France “came from Africa.”
He asked: “Who among you remembers their names or their faces?”
A presidential initiative to name or rename French streets and squares after some of the African fighters has made only faltering progress.
Those men were long nameless. Gaspard Mbaye, a Senegalese immigrant who arrived in France in 1988 and 20 years later founded an association dedicated to the memory of the tirailleurs, said that he had been appalled to discover that in the Trabuquet Cemetery in Menton, southern France, about half of the more than 1,100 graves of Africans killed in World War I bore no name. He has worked to rectify that.
“The movie has had some effect, which is good, but we are still far from full recognition of these men,” Mr. Mbaye said in an interview. “These men have children and grandchildren who should be able to move freely between their countries and France.”
Mr. Fargettas, the historian, said that among the worst forms of mistreatment of African soldiers came in 1944 in what he called “the whitening” of the army as it moved north from the Provence landing.
“The tirailleurs were forced to give their uniform to young resistance fighters,” he said. “Some were even obliged to wear German uniforms.” So was the myth consolidated that France’s army of liberation was all white.
In Dakar, the capital of Senegal, a massacre followed on Dec. 1, 1944, as Senegalese troops demanded of the French colonial authorities that they be paid in full, including a demobilization bonus.
Alleging a “mutiny,” French forces opened fire at Thiaroye, a town in the suburbs of Dakar. “There may well have been 300 dead, but France only officially acknowledges about 35,” Mr. Fargettas said.
“Tirailleurs” may never achieve full redress for the lack of acknowledgment of the crucial African contribution to France’s wars in Europe, but it has already made a significant difference.
“After this battle, you will no longer be Indigenous, you will be French!” one officer promises his African riflemen in the movie as they prepare to rise out of the trenches. “Indigenous forces” was a term used by the French Army for its African conscripts. But that pledge, like so many made to the Black men who fought for France, proved empty.
For Sy, as he wrote in The New York Times last year, stories in movies can create “a collective movement that can shift lines.”
The hard lines of French history may be shifting. De Gaulle liberated France. So did the African dead in Menton and Thiaroye. The French Army was not white. It was whitened.