Bastille Day is a reminder of what France owes its colonial soldiers


Military personnel from Algeria march to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of WWI in the traditional military parade as part of the Bastille Day celebrations on July 14 in Paris. (Ian Langsdon/European Pressphoto Agency)

On Monday, France marked Bastille Day, its national day, with its customary martial parade down the Champs Elysees. This year, France marked the centennial of the start of World War I, where some 1,300,000 French soldiers died. Three representatives from the Algerian military joined the procession for the first time, a recognition of the 173,000 Algerian troops conscripted into the armies of their colonial ruler between 1914 and 1918; around 23,000 died.

The presence of the Algerian soldiers provoked consternation among some. The memory of Algeria's bloody eight-year war for independence from France, waged between 1954-1962, is alive on both sides of the Mediterranean. Some Algerians wonder why they should honor the forced involvement of their people to fight the Great War, a conflict triggered by Europe's imperial delusions, not least given France's refusal to fully atone for the many atrocities it carried out in Algeria in the name of counter-insurgency.

On the other hand, France's far-right still harps on the exodus of nearly a million French and European settlers who lived in the colony, which France had considered an integral part of its territory. Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front party, argued that Algerians who fought for France in World War I were French citizens and therefore had nothing to do with Algeria, whose ruling party is the direct descendant of the revolutionary force that warred against the French. Her father, Jean Marie Le Pen, who founded the National Front, was a French paratrooper in the Algerian war.

During the World Cup this past month, right-wing French politicians found cause to grumble about the loyalties of the roughly two million people of Algerian descent living in France: Algerian victories early on in the tournament led to explosive celebrations (and a few incidents of rioting) in France's city squares and compelled the conservative mayor of Nice to ban the flying of national flags that weren't French.

But as divisive as history may be now, a lot of it has been undeniably ignored. The sacrifice of colonial soldiers during World War I and II is slowly entering the larger conversation, as it should. France deployed North African and West African soldiers across myriad fronts in both wars.

French North African soldier stationed in Aleppo, Syria, in 1940. (Margaret Bourke-White—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
French North African soldier stationed in Aleppo, Syria, in 1940. (Margaret Bourke-White—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

At the end of World War I, France seized territories once in the possession of the collapsing Ottoman empire. France deployed thousands of Arab Muslim soldiers from North Africa, among other colonial troops, in Syria, where they were instrumental in quashing the first bloom of Arab nationalism. In 1920, a French army comprising Algerians, Moroccans and Senegalese crushed an Arab force sent from Damascus at a caravanserai on the road from Beirut.

Undated photo of Tunisian soldiers stationed in Homs, Syria. (Margaret Bourke-White—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Undated photo of Tunisian soldiers stationed in Homs, Syria. (Margaret Bourke-White—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

That victory marked the beginning of a quarter-century of French rule over Syria and Lebanon, during which many French North African troops occupied historic Syrian cities that are now in global headlines for a new set of tragic reasons. The pictures interspersed here come courtesy of LIFE's archive--you can see a whole gallery of France's Syrian occupation here.

French colonial troops raise the flag in Aleppo, Syria, 1940. (Margaret Bourke-White—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image)
French colonial troops raise the flag in Aleppo, Syria, 1940. (Margaret Bourke-White—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image)

The awkward legacy of the "harkis" -- the term applied for North Africans who fought for the French empire, including during the Algerian war -- is one that still doesn't sit well either in France or the former colonies from where they hail. A small, processional walk on Monday, hope some observers, could be the first stirrings of a larger conversation about reconciliation.

 

Fireworks lit up the Paris skyline on Monday night in celebration of Bastille Day. (Reuters)
Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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Adam Taylor · July 14