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Senegalese Veterans Happy With French Pension Increase

Tens of thousands of veterans of France's colonial army will soon receive a raise in their pensions, after complaining for years of discrimination. Beginning in January, France will pay veterans living in its former colonies the same benefits as their French counterparts.

Mamadou Niang enlisted in the French army in 1955. He was sent from his native Senegal to mainland France to train as a paratrooper, before serving in the Algerian war in 1956.

Niang says his colonial army regiment saw frequent combat. Many fellow soldiers, he says never returned home.

Though Mamadou Niang fought in French uniform, the Senegalese soldier's pension checks are far less than those for fellow veterans in France. Niang receives 193 euros a month, or about $250. French veterans receive more than twice that amount.

That will change next year when France aligns its overseas veterans pensions with those paid out in France. The move affects more than 80,000 former soldiers in nearly 24 countries from Africa to Southeast Asia.

In 1959, when many of those countries were gaining independence, France froze pension increases.

French media has credited a new film about the contributions of North African soldiers in World War II with convincing President Jacques Chirac to right what many consider a historical wrong.

Mamadou Niang says, by raising the pension payments, France is finally paying soldiers from its former colonies for the blood and sweat they shed.

An estimated 100,000 colonial army soldiers died while fighting for France in both World Wars, as well as French battles in Southeast Asia and Algeria during the 1950s.

Veterans groups in France and abroad had fought for years to bring overseas pensions in line with those paid out in France. They argued that payments in some countries were so low, veterans were forced into poverty.

To the disappointment of some, the French government will not make the new pensions retroactive to make up for over 40 years of unequal pay.

But for Mamadou Niang, who went on to serve as a commander in the Senegalese army, the pension increase has symbolic significance.

After all, he says, he has lived all these years without the extra money. At this point, he says, the increase in his pension is just a bonus.