'We did our job, nothing more': The archivists who proved 1961 Paris massacre of Algerians

Philippe Grand, a former chief conservator at the Paris archives, was the first person to reveal evidence of the October 17, 1961 massacre of Algerians in the heart of Paris – one of the darkest chapters of postwar French history. Almost forty years after the hushed-up killings, testimonies by Grand and his colleague Brigitte Lainé helped ensure the massacre was finally recognised in a Paris court. As France marks the 60th anniversary of the atrocity, Grand spoke to FRANCE 24 about his role in safeguarding, and later revealing, the evidence. 

A car with a broken windshield pictured after French police's brutal crackdown on Algerian protesters on October 16, 1961, in which scores of people were killed.
A car with a broken windshield pictured after French police's brutal crackdown on Algerian protesters on October 16, 1961, in which scores of people were killed. © AFP / File picture

On October 17, 1961, as Algeria's bloody war of independence was coming to an end, the Paris federation of the Algerian National Liberation Front staged a protest against a night curfew applied only to Muslims from Algeria. French police brutally cracked down on protesters and in the following hours and days dozens of bodies were found in the Seine river, many with their hands tied behind their backs. Casualty number are still hotly disputed, with some historians saying around 200 people were killed. In the days following the massacre, prosecutors listed the victims’ names and how they were killed, but the Paris court dismissed the homicide cases and the files were piled up in the court’s attics and cellars. 

It was only in 1997 that two conservators, Philippe Grand and Brigitte Lainé, revealed the secret documents in court, proveding the first irrefutable evidence of the massacre.

>> October 17, 1961: A massacre of Algerians in the heart of Paris

Philippe Grand told FRANCE 24 how he and his late friend and colleague helped uncover the massacre.

FRANCE 24: How did you discover the documents proving the massacre?

Philippe Grand: My colleague Brigitte Lainé and I used to transfer files from the Paris courthouse to the city's archives in the late 1980s. When we got to the boxes for the years 1958 to 1962, we found the prosecution’s register from the time when the massacre was carried out; the days before and after October 17, 1961. We also found the court’s files dismissing the cases.

There was little information in the prosecution’s register: a few names of victims, though most remained unidentified, with only the letters "FMA", meaning French Muslim from Algeria. There were stamps with the word "dead" and then the date and cause of death. “Dragged out of the river under the Bezons or the Neuilly bridge”, “found in a park”, “traces of strangulation”, or “killed with a firearm”. Horrible things like that.

The judges who investigated these cases had roughly the same elements in their files, not much more. They ended their investigations fast because they didn’t have much to go on. The files had no names of police officers who might have been involved. I think that the files that did have that information disappeared.

You must understand that the massacre wasn’t carried out exclusively on Oct. 17. People had been killed before that day and after. But the day of the protest was the worst of the crackdown.

I was struck by those documents. We had often seen murder investigations but this time there were so many of them. I’m ashamed though, because when I first saw the documents and realised what they were referring to, I read through them fast. My first feeling was concern. I thought they could be destroyed or hidden somewhere no one would find them.

We classified them and wrote on the registry that they were in our files but we didn’t alert anyone about them. Alerting people could have brought attention to those documents and put them at risk. Destroying or hiding evidence is something that happened in public archives, I’m ashamed to say. Throughout our career we had hidden boxes, to save them from destruction, so we just classified the Oct. 17 documents.

Ten years later historian Jean-Luc Einaudi contacted us so we would testify in court about them.  

F24: How did you end up testifying in court?

P.G.: Everyone knew that the Paris courthouse judiciary files were transferred to the Paris archives, but nobody knew what exactly was in those files. Many archives were lost before, during and after transfers.

Jean-Luc Einaudi was one of the people most interested in the massacre and he had written a wonderful book with witness testimonies in 1991 [La bataille de Paris (The Battle of Paris)]. He had made official requests to examine the archives, but the prefect and the archives’ director rejected them all.

The turning point was 1997, when former police prefect Maurice Papon was tried for crimes against humanity committed during World War II. Jean-Luc Einaudi wanted to testify about Maurice Papon’s role in the 1961 massacre. Since he couldn’t access the archives he asked a member of the Socialist Party, David Assouline, for help. Assouline had the idea of asking us an open-ended question: “What do you have on October 17, 1961?”

I told him that the prosecution’s register is accessible to everyone but that to examine the judges’ files he had to submit a special request. Assouline told me the matter was too urgent. I received him when our office was closed and when he saw the registry he asked if he could photocopy those documents. I said, sure, they are accessible to everyone. The next day they were printed in the newspaper Libération – and that’s when my troubles started. The archives’ administration opened a probe against me but I knew I had done nothing wrong.

While defending myself, I testified in Maurice Papon’s trial in 1997 and then I testified a second time in writing, when Maurice Papon sued Einaudi for libel in 1999. I told the court that the documents I had archived confirmed Einaudi’s writings and statements on the massacre. I described the killing methods: strangulation with police batons. Some victims were knocked unconscious and thrown into the river, others were thrown in the river still conscious. When they tried to swim away, they were shot at. Bodies were also found in other waterways, the Marne river and the Ourcq canal.  

I saw 150 judiciary files. Between 50 and 100 other victims were mentioned indirectly. Those files included witnesses’ statements describing the execution-style killings of North Africans. But the police brigade in charge of Paris’ waterways had nothing in its files for that day. Its archives had disappeared.

F24: After your testimony you were punished ... 

P.G.: The administrative inquiry was like being grilled by police with an aggressive tone: “Do you recognise this …?” I knew the people who interrogated me and I was shocked. I had never seen anything like this. But Brigitte Lainé and I always considered we were on the right side here. Everything we had done was legal, we violated no secret and gave no names. A judge had called us in to testify and concealing information is an offense. It’s very serious.

After the second trial, the libel case against Jean-Luc Einaudi, we were threatened with disciplinary hearings and being fired. By then everything was over for me. The administration had barred me from the archival sites where I was working, the prisons’ archives and from the courthouse.

Some conservators have a 19th century mentality. They set their own rules outside of the law, thinking they’re protecting France’s image. For them, keeping all Oct. 17-related documents or registers secret was not even a question, it was obvious. It was obvious our decision wasn’t going to go down well, but it was my duty to say what I knew.

I must say, though, I disagree with some of the people who kindly defended us, saying Brigitte Lainé and I had greater moral and civic values, that we put citizenship ahead of our own interests. No, we did our job. Nothing more.

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