France’s armed forces ministry has provided local authorities with a 210-page booklet containing the names of 100 Africans who fought for France in World War Two, so that streets and squares may be named after them.
France’s reappraisal of its colonial past is fuelled by the global anti-racism protests and Black Lives Matter.
Just last week, the government of France returned the skulls of 24 Algerian anti-colonial soldiers, beheaded by French forces during colonial France’s conquest of the North African country that had been lying in storage in a Paris museum, back to Algeria.
The booklet containing Africans who fought for France in World War Two are made up of many Senegalese and North African soldiers.
Africans played a big role in the liberation of France in 1944.
French Junior Defence Minister Geneviève Darrieussecq, presenting the 210-page booklet, said “the names, faces, lives of these African heroes must become part of our lives as free citizens, because without them we would not be free”.
Last month a statue of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who drew up rules for French colonies in the 17th Century, was vandalised. Many statues identified with slavery and colonialism have been knocked down or vandalised in Europe and the US.
“Rather than knocking down, I ask you to build,” Ms Darrieussecq told mayors. “Rather than erasing, I ask you to consider turning our public spaces into places to teach.”
She said that “today very few of our streets are named after these African combatants, so the aim is to build”.
She said plaques should explain the role of an African war hero commemorated with a statue or street name.
Sira Sylla, an MP campaigning to get due recognition of Africans’ contributions to modern France, welcomed the government initiative.
“Like it or not, their forefathers took part in the liberation of France. The history of our country and history of Africa are linked and it is urgent to spread that knowledge,” she said.
More than 400,000 Africans in the Free French Forces took part in the Allies’ landings in the south of France in August 1944, codenamed Operation Dragoon. They were involved in heavy fighting to liberate Toulon and Marseille.
After the Nazi invasion of France in 1940 many Africans in French colonies volunteered for Gen Charles de Gaulle’s Free French Forces, though many were also drafted into service.
About 400,000 came from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, and more than 70,000 from Senegal and other sub-Saharan colonies.
Among the many African soldiers who fought in WW2 are: Addi Bâ – known to the Germans as “the Black Terrorist“ – Born in Guinea in 1923, he lived in Langeais in the Loire region and fought with the Senegalese Infantry but was captured by the Germans in June 1940.
He escaped with some fellow Africans from Neufchâteau in the Vosges and in 1943 helped to set up the Vosges mountains “maquis” – part of the French Resistance.
The Germans hunted the group and caught Addi Bâ, who was jailed in Épinal and tortured but refused to give them information. The Germans shot him in December 1943. A street in Langeais was named after him in 1991.