In his 1927 movie Metropolis, the pioneering director Fritz Lang portrayed the wretched of the earth surging towards light and freedom, to the amazement of those they had been anonymously serving for so long. The 2006 film Indigènes resembles Lang's masterpiece in the way it shows how the colonial "natives" of the title fought to liberate France during the 1939-45 world war, shed their lives in their tens of thousands for the "motherland", were returned to conditions of repression and discrimination, but have now - sixty years on - marched proudly into the full light of history.
Rachid Bouchareb, a French director of Algerian descent, has shot a moving and historically accurate film (Days of Glory in its English title) that shared a major award at the 2006 Cannes festival with Ken Loach's The Wind that Shakes the Barley; but which looks less ideologically slanted than the latter.
The world probably doesn't know much about this story, but nor did the French public before Bouchareb's movie. This very ignorance is part of its impact; for what historical research had failed to bring to the forefront has now, thanks to a film almost exclusively spoken in Arabic, found its place in the French national psyche.
True, a few French people are still nostalgic for the "good old colonial days" when north African and sub-Saharan Africans ruled by France knew their (subordinate) place. But those days are gone for ever, and the vast majority of French people realise it. Many older French people can still recall how they were liberated in 1944 by French troops composed of African volunteers and draftees. Millions more too young to remember the war now have a chance to become acquainted with a more truthful and less "whites only" version of history.
Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde.
Among Patrice de Beer's articles in openDemocracy:
"France's incendiary crisis"
"The Schröder-Merkel clash spills across the Rhine"
"France's political sclerosis"
"Paris in flames: the limits of repression"
"Child's play at the CIA"
"France's immigration myths"
"Law and disorder in France"
"Ukraine's inspiring boredom"
"France's crisis after crisis"
"The Ségolène phenomenon"
"France and Europe: the democratic deficit exposed"
"Zidane's farewell, France's hangover"
"France and Lebanon: diplomacy of tragedy"
"France in Lebanon: the strength of hesitation"
Community and nation
The facts are these. In 1944, the French army had 550,000 soldiers, more than half coming from the "empire": 134,000 Algerians, 73,000 Moroccans, 26,000 Tunisians, and 92,000 sub-Saharan Africans. Around 60,000 of them (including French nationals living in the colonies) paid with their lives for the liberation of a country they didn't know, which oppressed them and never really recognised their sacrifices. They represented a quarter of all French casualties during the second world war, adding to the 70,000 who fell in Verdun in 1916.
They were also too often used as cannon-fodder, second-class soldiers: fed more poorly, clothed more shabbily, paid less, rewarded rarely, promoted hardly, humiliated routinely. Indigènes reminds us of all this. It explains why some, such as former Algerian president Ahmed Ben Bella, were among the first to take arms in 1954 to lead the Algerian war until independence was won in 1962.
When Charles de Gaulle started thinking in 1959 of granting independence to France's then colonies (a year after he returned to power to head the "fifth republic"), he froze the colonials' war-veteran pensions. Over subsequent years, their value dwindled compared with those of the metropolitan French. Instead of the annual €461 their French comrades-in-arms receive, the 56,700 survivors (from twenty countries) get only a pittance. Now, thanks to Indigènes, Jacques Chirac has promised that €100 million per year will be spent to ensure that all former combatants from the war years are treated equally.
Besides the 500 cinemas where the film was shown on its release on 27 September, Bouchareb's team are a particular hit in the deprived housing estates surrounding Paris which went up in flames during the riots of October-November 2005. The makers of the film are trying to return to disenfranchised young people some pride in their roots and ancestors who shed their lives for liberty. Jamel Debbouze (the Moroccan-born star and France's best-paid actor, who worked on this film for the minimum wage) remarked to high-school students in Arcueil: "This film tells how France was unjust, but also great. It also tells of our love for this country."
The popular comic (who also appeared in Amélie Poulain) has a unique, bitter-sweet way of conveying the transforming potential of the film. Debbouze, whose grandfather fought in the Armée française d'Afrique, whose father used to sweep the Paris Metro, and whose mother cleaned offices, says: "Our great-grandparents liberated France, our grandparents rebuilt it, our parents cleaned it. Now we are going to tell her history!"
Bouchareb rejects claims that his movie is "communalist". Rather, he says: "There is no hatred (in my movie), no feeling of revenge, just a bit of bitterness and of hurt pride (...) The youth of today need markers, models and reasons to feel proud and to hope. My heroes are their forefathers. We all are children of France, of the republic. We must stop building up bitterness, frustrations, digging moats between communities."
Anger and progress
This recovery of history - which is also a catching-up with history - comes at a crucial time. In France as elsewhere, Islam is often seen through the prism of its extremist, fundamentalist wing, rather than through its silent, moderate majority. It is also a period when the traditional French integration process has shown its limits. Far too many qualified young people from immigrant families are confronted with a glass wall when they look for jobs or promotions; while the unqualified ones - who graduated, or didn't, from dump schools in the banlieues - face an unemployment rate far higher than the national average of 9%. Meanwhile, promises of a tougher immigration policy from Nicolas Sarkozy, rightwing interior minister and leading candidate for the 2007 presidency, have fanned ethnic divides without solving the problem.
A survey published in January 2006 (cited in "France's immigration myths", February 2006) showed that France's immigrant population (which represents 23% of the total population, the highest percentage in Europe) of north African origin is less attracted by Islamist sirens than its equivalents in other European countries.
Apart from pockets of fanatics who preach al-Qaida's message and seek to die for the cause in Iraq or Afghanistan, most such immigrants want (just as the heroes of Indigènes did) the French motto of "liberty, equality and fraternity" to be consistently and fairly applied. They aspire to equal treatment in the job market, they are for a secularist not a communalist society, and they consider Islam's dimension a personal rather than a social or political one.
This is a situation full of possibilities that several of France's European partners can only dream of. The prospects are tantalising:
- if passions inherited from the colonial past, petty nationalism fanned by economic crisis and its consequences for unemployment, ethnic ghettoisation and the lack of a better managed - and communicated - immigration policy can be laid to rest
- if integration of the excluded - represented by figures like Bouchareb and Debbouze, who seized opportunities to succeed on their own initiative - can be made smoother rather than more difficult
- if this dream of becoming French like the others, of living with them and (mostly) like them in a society which is slowly setting itself free from its traditional religious straitjacket, can be welcomed rather than feared ...
... how much could France achieve?
The challenges of this situation is frightening politicians as the 2007 elections approach (though not the minister for veteran affairs, Hamlaoui Mekachera, one of the thousands of harkis - Algerians who fought for the French army in Algeria - whose own buried experience is also being excavated at last). In society, despite the recurrence of tension in the banlieues, the overall picture looks healthier. Some businessmen have asked for "anonymous CVs" that conceal the applicant's ethnic origin; the chief-of-staff of the French army, General Bruno Cuche, has openly asked for a more diverse officer corps. Will Rachid Bouchareb's planned next film, on the post-1945 era, help to speed the process?