France promises African war veterans full pensions
President Nicolas Sarkozy on Tuesday promised African veterans who fought for France the same pension as their French comrades, offering an end to their long-running campaign for equal rights.
Sarkozy made the announcement at a lunch for leaders of 12 African countries who are in France to take part in its national celebrations on Wednesday, for which he has drawn strong criticism from human rights groups.
"As testimony of our unfailing gratitude to the former combatants from your countries, we wish to see them receive from now on the same retirement benefits as their French brothers-in-arms," Sarkozy said after the lunch.
"There are some debts that can never, never be repaid. Such is the one that France owes to your countries, where the flame of a free France began to burn 70 years ago and whose sons shed their blood to free France," he added.
He said his government had agreed at a cabinet meeting on Tuesday morning to introduce "perfect equality" of military pensions for veterans of French forces regardless of what country they live in.
France had previously resisted paying the same pension to veterans who did not live in French territory, though many of them are in countries that were French colonies at the time.
One of the African leaders present, Mali's President Amadou Toumani Toure, called it a "historic decision."
Sarkozy's gesture on war pensions came as he hosted the leaders for celebrations to mark 50th anniversary of the independence of 14 African countries. The leaders of Ivory Coast and Madagascar are not attending.
Rights groups planned a protest in Paris on Tuesday evening against African armies joining in the Bastille Day parade, alleging that some of them are led by war criminals.
Among those taking taking part is Niger, where a military junta seized power in a coup five months ago and where French nuclear energy giant Areva has lucrative uranium mining contracts.
The International Federation of Human Rights Leagues (FIDH) was "seriously concerned that certain countries' delegations... may contain people responsible for grave human rights violations," it said in a letter to Sarkozy.
"It would be no small paradox that during a celebration of the values of the Republic, these values should be flouted by the presence of torturers, dictators and other predators of human rights, and that instead of pursuing them, France honours them."
© 2010 AFP