Remembering the Paris massacre 50 years on
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Protesters gathered in central Paris to mark fifty years since a deadly police crackdown on Algerian anti-war protesters, one of the darkest days in modern French history.
Anti-discrimination organisations and advocacy groups gathered for a massive rally in the heart of Paris Monday to remember the victims of a deadly police crackdown against Algerian protesters in Paris fifty years ago
On the evening of October 17, 1961, tens of thousands of Algerian anti-war protesters from the Paris region gathered at various landmarks in the city to protest against a curfew targeting their community.
The demonstrations were organised by the Paris-wing of the revolutionary Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), which was fighting for Algeria’s liberation from France. The protest was meant to be peaceful but scores were killed and a community left devastated.
Bodies found in River Seine
That fateful night, French police acted swiftly and ruthlessly under the orders of their chief Maurice Papon to quell the protests. Gun shots rang out as thousands were arrested en masse, herded on to buses and transported to the makeshift detention centres in the Paris area. Those detained reported that they were beaten and held for days without food. Dead bodies were also found washed up on the banks of the River Seine after they were allegedly dumped in the city’s famous river by the French police.
The events leading up to the tragic night of 1961 were set against a backdrop of rising tensions in France as it struggled to accept that it was fighting a losing battle to quash a seven-year struggle for independence in Algeria. In Paris, violence flared between French security forces and FLN members in the months leading up to the October 17 protests. The tipping point was an attack which left several Parisian police officers dead. A livid Maurice Papon was determined to hunt down the perpetrators and crush all signs of rebellion. One of the measures introduced was an 8:00pm -5:30am curfew imposed exclusively on the Algerian community in the Paris metropolitan area.
In response, the FLN called on the Algerian community to join peaceful protests in Paris on 17 October. Thousands thronged to landmark sites such as the Saint Michel bridge near Notre-Dame, the Opéra, Place de la Concorde and even the Champs-Elysée.
“I arrived at Opéra at around 6:30pm,” said Mr. Ouaz, whose witness account was published by Collectif 17 Octobre 61, a group dedicated to preserving the memory of this tragedy. “Armed police officers were waiting for us with their batons to force us down a long tunnel that connected the metro station to the police station. We didn’t even have the time to protest… The police were not surprised by what had happened, on the contrary, they appeared to be very well organised. We were scared.”
Exact casualty figures from that fateful night remain obscure. The following day, the left-leaning French newspaper Libération reported the official toll as two dead, several wounded and 7,500 arrests, while the FLN marked the death toll at 300 people.
Then, as quickly as it happened, the incident was forgotten.
In the years that followed, Papon continued to serve the French government in a variety of roles until 1981, when the French weekly newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné published an article accusing him of having collaborated with the Germans during World War II. Papon was officially charged with crimes against humanity in 1983, but his trial for authorising the deportation of 1,690 Jews to a detention camp in the Paris suburb of Drancy would not take place until 1997.
It was during this trial that the events of October 17, 1961 resurfaced. French historian Jean-Luc Einaudi, author of an historical account of the atrocity, “La Bataille de Paris” (“The Battle of Paris”, 1991), took to the stand to testify against Papon and the direct role he played in the deadly repression of the Algerian protesters.
For many in France, it was the first time they had heard of the violence, which seemed to have been completely erased from the country’s collective memory. French authorities remain reluctant to investigate the violence that night and no one has been tried for the atrocities committed during the Algerian war of independence.
“It’s total silence. It’s been 50 years since the massacre happened, and neither the president nor the prime minister have ever recognised the event as a state crime - which it was. It was an action that was carried out by the people in power at the time”, said Henri Pouillot, a managing director for the French anti-discrimination organisation MRAP, and representative of the group Collectif 17 Octobre 61.
The French government has yet to officially apologise for the events of October 17, 1961.
It took nearly 40 years for the events of October 17, 1961 and its victims to even be remembered.
Although the issue is yet to make headway in the national arena, the city of Paris officially recognised the events in 2001. Back then, Socialist Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoé unveiled an obscure plaque on the Saint Michel bridge “in memory of the numerous Algerians killed during the bloody suppression of the peaceful demonstration on 17 October 1961.” The ceremony was boycotted and criticised by rival right-wing members of the Paris City Council who said the move would reignite communal tensions in France.
Gestures are not enough
Yet for some, these gestures are not enough and do not excuse the fact that the national government has not moved to do the same.
“The plaque was mounted on the side of the bridge where it’s not very visible. You either have to know that it is there, or happen on it by chance”, said Pouillot.
This year, in addition to planned protests to mark the events’ 50th anniversary, organisation Collectif 17 Octobre 61 circulated a petition to the French government demanding that, “senior officials of the Republic recognise the massacre committed by Paris’ police force on October 17, 1961 and the days that followed as a state crime… that the official archives are made available to everyone, historians and citizens; that historical research of this period be encouraged, whether in a Franco-Algerian, international or an independent framework”.
“It disappeared like everything about the war in Algeria disappeared. It wasn’t just October 17, 1961. Everything about the war was forgotten,” explains Benjamin Stora, an Algerian-born author and professor of North-African history at Sorbonne. “It’s only organisations and non-profit groups who recognise it. I don’t know why the government doesn’t want to acknowledge these kinds of incidents. You have to ask them”
Yet according to Isabel Hollis, a lecturer at the University of London Institute in Paris, although France’s decades-long amnesia of the event is partly rooted in its discomfort with this period of its history, it is also symptomatic of its overall attitude towards its colonial past.
“There’s still this feeling in France that colonialism wasn’t a wholly bad thing. For example, [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy went to [Senegal’s capital] Dakar in 2007 and basically said ‘we took, but we also gave’. The speech was heavily criticised afterward”, Hollis said. “It’s not something that’s visible in cities in the same way that traces of Vichy France are. On every school in Paris you have a plaque remembering how many children were deported. You don’t see that with French colonial history”.