A new film featuring the Lupin star Omar Sy has highlighted the forgotten heroism of African riflemen from France’s former colonies who fought in the frontline trenches of the first world war.
Tirailleurs was released on Wednesday shortly after a row sparked by an interview the actor had given to Le Parisien in which he contrasted attitudes to conflicts in Europe and Africa.
The film focuses on the overlooked contribution of fighters – both volunteer and conscripted – from France’s west African colonies who fought in France from 1914-18 .
About 200,000 men from west Africa fought at the front, and an estimated 20,000 died. They were known as Tirailleurs Sénégalais as most came from Senegal but were also drawn from what was then known as French West Africa, made up of eight territories including Mauritania, French Sudan (now Mali), Niger and Guinea.
Sy, who stars in and coproduced Tirailleurs, plays a character in his 40s who joins the French army to find and protect his 17-year-old son, who has been conscripted and sent to the trenches of Verdun.
Sy, whose father is from Senegal and his mother Mauritania, grew up in the low-income banlieue town of Trappes. He has been working with the director Mathieu Vadepied to make the film for the best part of the last decade.
His interview with Le Parisien to promote it, however, sparked a national row after he seemed to suggest that people were more concerned about conflicts in Europe than those in Africa.
“A war is the sinking of humanity even when it is at the other end of the world. It reminds us that man is capable of invading, of attacking civilians, children. We have the impression that it was only when Ukraine happened that we realised this … but guys, I’ve seen this since I was a kid. When it’s far away, you say to yourself, well over there, they’re savages, we don’t do things like that,” he said.
Some people took exception to his comments, pointing out that 108,000 French soldiers had served in several operations in Africa since former president François Hollande set up Operation Serval in 2013 at the request of the Mali authorities to combat the threat of terrorism in the region.
Sy dismissed the polemic, telling French television: “I said what I said … take whatever meaning from it you want. The problem isn’t what I said it’s what I am. I was talking about a film that is about France, it’s about war and what I said was quite clear. People want to create a smokescreen around the promotion of this film … it isn’t what I said that’s being attacked, it’s me.”
The historian Anthony Guyon agreed, telling journalists the row was stoked by “people who known nothing about the tirailleurs”.
The first tirailleurs – a military term coined under Napoleon Bonaparte to describe light infantry skirmishers – incorporated into France’s armed forces were from its north African colonies – Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. The first Senegalese corps was established in 1857 under the orders of Napoleon III. In the early years, it included former slaves and prisoners of war.
By 1914, there were 21 battalions of Tirailleurs Sénégalais (BTS), all serving in west Africa and Morocco, five of which were sent to the western front serving with distinction at Ypres during the Battle of Flanders. When French military chiefs realised the war would last longer than they had initially thought, a major recruitment drive was launched in west Africa; 42 of the 93 Senegalese battalions subsequently formed fought in France. The last Senegalese tirailleur from the first world war, Abdoulaye Ndiaye, died in 1998 aged 104.
Sy has insisted the film does not challenge French history but focuses on an often overlooked aspect.
“We have the same history but not the same memory” the actor told Allocine. “To recall a part of history with a different memory doesn’t mean we are denying the history we know or have been told completes the story.
At the Cannes film festival last year, Vadepied said the film aimed to rectify “France’s failure to recognise the tirailleurs and tell their story”.
It is not yet known when the film, titled Father & Soldier in English, will be released in the UK.