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France votes to rehabilitate memory of soldiers shot in World War One

More than 600 soldiers who were shot for desertion or self-harm will be remembered on war memorials after parliament voted to ‘close these memorial wounds’

A World War One memorial carving with years and woman figure

The new bill will recognise the shot soldiers on World War One war memorials and a new monument will be built Pic: Dan Shachar / Shutterstock

French soldiers who were “shot as an example” during World War One will be recognised on war memorials and a new national monument built in their honour, the French parliament has voted.

The bill was passed in the Assemblée nationale overnight on Thursday, January 13, in a law that demanded “rehabilitation” of the 600 soldiers who were killed this way.

A defence commission had rejected the bill at the start of January, but the Assemblée adopted it by 39 votes in favour versus 26 against, and nine abstentions. The bill was proposed by MP Bastien Lachaud.

The bill seeks to rehabilitate the memory of soldiers who were shot, mainly for transgressions such as desertion or self-harm in a bid to escape service.

It reads: “Soldiers serving in the French armies from August 2, 1914 to November 11, 1918 who were sentenced to death for military disobedience or voluntary mutilation…and whose sentence has been carried out, shall be subject to a general and collective civic and moral rehabilitation.

“France recognises that these soldiers were victims of rushed justice, an instrument of a repressive policy, which did not respect the rights of the defence and did not take into account the context of extreme brutalisation to which the soldiers were subjected.”

The votes in favour came from across party lines, although most of the ruling party LREM (centre-right) voted against. The MoDem (centre-right) party was also split.

Mr Lachaud, who trained as a history teacher, said the bill was important, because “more than 100 years later, we must close these memorial wounds”.

LREM MP and minister Adrien Taquet said that the government had already started the process of improving people’s knowledge of this part of history. He said: “The Army Ministry has long been involved in this process of transparency and history.”

One MP, Sophie Beaudouin-Hubière (LREM), was against the decision, and warned against “politicising and bringing modern ideas” to history. She pointed out that many of the soldiers concerned were shot for “repeated desertion”.

However, LR (centre-right) MP Philippe Gosselin argued for the other side, recalling in an emotional comment how his grandfather, a reserve officer, had ensured that a defence of some shot soldiers was heard “by candlelight, in an empty classroom”, which eventually led to their pardoning in 1934.

The new bill comes after then-President François Hollande recognised in 2013 that “certain [soldiers] were condemned in an arbitrary way, and killed by firearm”, and sought to rehabilitate their memory.

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