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Last Updated: Wednesday, 27 September 2006, 20:03 GMT 21:03 UK
French film aims to unite nation
By Alasdair Sandford
BBC News, Paris

Screen shot from Indigenes
Indigenes shows how North African soldiers were marginalised
French President Jacques Chirac has announced that the pensions of foreign soldiers who fought in the French army are to be brought into line with those of French ones.

The pensions were frozen in 1959 - "crystallised", in the official language - meaning that 80,000 veterans in 23 countries receive less than one-third of the amount given to their French counterparts.

In spite of a long campaign from veterans' associations, successive governments refused to budge.

In 2002 a partial "de-crystallisation" adjusted foreign pensions to take account of the standard of living in the relevant countries, but they still lagged well behind.

In the end, what has pushed the president to act is a new film, called Indigenes, telling the story of North African soldiers who helped to liberate France in World War II.

According to some of the cast who attended a private screening at the Elysee Palace, President Chirac was visibly moved by the movie. So too was his wife, Bernadette.

"Jacques, we must do something," she reportedly said.

Powerful scenes

The announcement on pensions comes on the day Indigenes is released in France.

The word means "natives", the term commonly given to African soldiers at the time.

Screen shot from Indigenes
The film touched on some of the complex issues during the war
They formed the bulk of the First French Army recruited in Africa, the original French army having been decimated at the start of the war.

The film is about the campaign from Provence through to Alsace in 1944-45 as seen through the eyes of four soldiers, who leave their homelands in Algeria and Morocco to fight for France.

The Hollywood-esque nature of the film is reflected in its English title, Days of Glory. The fear and courage of the men is evident amid the powerful battle scenes.

There is discrimination but also a warm welcome from the French people. One soldier hopes to marry a French girl he meets in Provence but is forced to leave her behind.

The film also recounts the love-hate relationship between a young Moroccan recruit and his French superior.

The symbolism of some of the scenes is striking.

African soldiers with only a limited command of the French language sing the Marseillaise and hoist the French flag with pride.

Arab men sacrifice their lives to liberate a village in Alsace, but the survivors are ignored as official photographers snap the white French troops who arrive on the scene afterwards.

Rewriting history

At one screening at La Defense just outside Paris, there was applause as the film's credits rolled at the end.

During a question and answer session afterwards, the director Rachid Bouchareb said his own family background had prompted him to make "Indigenes".

I never saw an Arab or an African soldier in my history books
Student, Paris
Many in the audience were themselves of North African origin, and had no idea of this part of French history.

"I never saw an Arab or an African soldier in my history books", says 23-year-old Salima, a student from the Paris suburb of Seine-St-Denis.

Her parents come from Morocco and her grandfather fought in the war.

She believes Indigenes can help young people of North African origin realise they are just as French as everyone else.

"When you go to Africa, people tell us we're not African. In Europe they tell us we're not European. We are, and we're staying.

"We're a bridge that Europe and Africa needs, especially in these times."

Eagerly awaited

The film's cast and production team have been touring French cities, visiting schools. They believe it is important that those in the banlieues - poor suburbs - understand what their recent ancestors did for France.

The cast of Les Indigenes at the Cannes Film Festival
The cast were awarded a prize for best actor at Cannes this year
They also argue that wartime memories have tended to focus on events such as the Normandy landings, the actions of the Resistance and the liberation of Paris.

The offensive from the south has been largely forgotten.

Not everyone agrees with the message being put across.

The National Front has accused the producers of Indigenes of teaching "rubbish" about the Algerian war in the 1950s, and of mixing up the past with issues concerning the children of immigrants today.

But if early reactions to the film are anything to go by, the signs are that Indigenes looks set to have a strong impact.

President Chirac is perhaps only the first of many to be moved by it.

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