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Tuesday, 25 December, 2001, 11:20 GMT
France acts on foreign soldiers' pensions
Cambodian soldiers
Soldiers like these may be entitled to huge sums
By the BBC's Hugh Schofield in Paris

In towns and villages in Senegal and Ivory Coast, and in Morocco, Cambodia and Vietnam, there is rejoicing over a legal decision taken in Paris that should result in the paying out of some extremely large sums of money.

The Council of State - France's highest administrative court - has ruled that the pensions of tens of thousands of African and Asian French army veterans have been kept illegally depressed for more than 40 years.

This will bring enormous sums of money to the homes of those who fought for France

Lawyer Arnaud Lyon-Caen
If the ruling is followed, it will mean some 85,000 foreign soldiers from France's former colonies will receive back-payments worth tens of thousands of euros.

The defence ministry in Paris has itself estimated the arrears at 10 bn francs (1.53 bn euros) and discussions are underway with the finance ministry to examine ways of raising the money.

Case study

The decision at the end of last month was made in the case of a Senegalese man - Amadou Diop - who served in the French army from 1937 to 1959, rising to the rank of sergeant.

His lawyers argued that a 1959 law - known as the "crystallisation" law - which froze the pensions of colonial soldiers at the values of the time and made them non-payable to widows, was illegal.

The Council of State agreed, and ordered that his pension be brought into line with that of an equivalent French war veteran.

Back-payments are also to include interest.

Mr Diop has died since the suit was launched, so the money will go to his widow.

Lawyers' cause

Lawyers who have spent several years pushing the cause of foreign veterans said a precedent has now been established.

Ivory Coast soldiers
Hundreds of soldiers from France's former colonies fought wars in Africa and Asia

"This will bring enormous sums of money to the homes of those who fought for France," said Diop's lawyer Arnaud Lyon-Caen.

"It will be extremely expensive. But it is justice. These men must be reimbursed for the services they rendered."

Another lawyer who also championed the cause, Didier Ligier, said it had taken 40 years to put an end to the scandal.

"Through all this time the French state has made huge savings at the expense of old men, many of whom left behind limbs on the field of combat for France," he said.

Hundreds of thousands of soldiers from France's overseas possessions fought in the French army in World War Two and in subsequent colonial conflicts in Madagascar, Vietnam, Tunisia and Algeria.

They formed regiments such as the Senegalese Tirailleurs or the Moroccan Spahis.

The 1959 law broke the link between their pensions and those of their French counterparts.

Thus today a soldier who has spent 15 years in the army gets 2,800 francs a month if he is French, but 673 francs if he is from Guinea, 400 francs if he is Moroccan or Tunisian, and a mere 103 francs if he is Cambodian.

Major victory

Successive French governments had tried to suppress attempts to repeal the law.

Moroccan skyline
Former regiments such as the Moroccan Spahis will now get the same pensions as their French counterparts

They argued that French-level pensions would make foreign veterans absurdly wealthy in the countries where they live - in effect meaning that they were better off than their French counterparts.

However the court ruling establishes the principle that the return for a service rendered to the state should not vary according to a soldier's origin.

Veterans' groups in all the former colonies have hailed it as a major victory. The question now is whether a new law can be introduced quickly enough to fulfil the aging soldiers' hopes.

Most of them are very old indeed.

See also:

28 Jul 00 | Africa
Anti-France demos in Abidjan
27 Nov 01 | Europe
France's 'brutal colonial war'
22 Dec 00 | Europe
How France's 'Mr Africa' operated
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