Remembering the Colonial Past in France and Africa

Remembering the Colonial Past in France and Africa

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Once France’s sub-Saharan African colonies became independent in 1960, African troops who had served France loyally both in the world wars and in its wars of decolonization did not fit easily into the official, nationalist narrative of postcolonial African leaders of an African nation united in the struggle against French colonialism. As a result their role and experiences were largely ‘forgotten’ for some forty years after independence. A powerful symbol of this official forgetting is that, as recently as 1999, in France’s oldest African colony Senegal, a French colonial monument originally cast in 1923 to commemorate the role played by African soldiers fighting for France in World War I, was removed to a small cemetery on the outskirts of Dakar because its presence in the centre of the city was considered too redolent of the country’s colonial past. Yet five years later the monument made a great comeback to the city centre after the announcement by the President Wade, in the presence of a plethora of African heads of state of former French colonies, of the creation of a national day to commemorate the tirailleurs. At the same time he also announced that the Senegalese government would henceforth pay an allowance to all Senegalese war veterans still alive on 2 March 2000, in addition to the increase in African war veterans’ pensions recently announced by France. Following this the monument was restored to the centre of the city to become the focal point of a vast commemoration project in which the Place de la Gare was renamed the Place du Tirailleur and designated as a memorial to African soldiers who perished in both world wars.

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