October 17, 1961 marks the anniversary of one of the worst events in the history of France and Algeria. On this day, France committed a massacre against Algerian demonstrators, who went out in peaceful protests against a discriminatory nighttime curfew targeting Algerians in the Paris region. At the time Algeria was still occupied and in the midst of its revolution for liberation (1954-1962).
French historian Jean-Luc Einaudi stressed in his book, dubbed “La Bataille de Paris” (The Battle of Paris), that more than 150 Algerians were killed or forcibly disappeared in these events. He holds Paris police Chief Maurice Papon responsible for their killing.
Meanwhile, the British historians, Jim House and Neil MacMaster, described in their book, “Algerians, State Terror, and Memory,” what the Algerians were subjected to as “the most violent repression of a demonstration in Western Europe in contemporary history.”
Over the past decades, news about the suppression of the demonstration remained obscured in France. The government of the day censored the news and banned the publishing of books on the massacre, as well as the few photos of the event. The police records were kept confidential, which prevented documented historical research from being conducted, and the number of victims still remains debatable.
Black Mark in France’s History
In 1961, the notorious, racist and sadistic Paris police chief was Maurice Papon, who was the only remaining official from the Vichy government. He was convicted in 1998 of crimes against humanity for his role in the deportation of 1,560 Jews under the Vichy regime, which was collaborating with the occupying German enemy during the World War II.
He was previously a military leader in Algeria and was famous for brutal torture against the Algerian Mujahideen during the war of liberation. Papon was a disciple of French General Paul Aussaresses, who killed Larbi Ben M'Hidi, the icon of the Algerian armed struggle at the time, after flaying his face.
On October 5, 1961, Papon issued a press statement in which he imposed an 8:30 pm -5:30 am curfew in the Paris metropolitan area for “Algerian Muslim workers, Muslims in France, and the French Muslims from Algeria.”
Papon used these racist terms constantly even though there were about 250,000 Algerians living at the time in Paris who were officially considered French and carried a French identity card.
He advised the French Muslims to wander alone, or else the police would consider them suspects, and ordered the coffee shops that serve drinks to French Muslims to close every day at 7:00 pm.
Papon considered all Algerian immigrants to be supporters of Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN) and contribute to the war effort by sending money to its members.
Algerian immigrants at the time considered the curfew to be racist and arbitrary, so the Paris federation of the FLN called on the Algerian population of Paris, including men, women and children, to demonstrate peacefully against the unjust decision.
The instructions were very clear: “Do not bring anything, any kind of weapon, not even a pocket knife or a knife, and avoid provocation.” The Front was preparing for the Evian negotiations to restore national sovereignty and end the war.
About 70,000 Algerians protested that day to demand freedom and independence for their country, along with about 5,000 Moroccan, Tunisian, Senegalese, Spanish, Italian, Polish and Portuguese immigrants who were showing solidarity. They gathered in public squares to denounce the decision and raised slogans to inform the French authorities of their demands.
About 7,000 policemen and 1,400 riot police repressed demonstrators by beating them and firing tear gas to prevent their march, which had not obtained legal approval. However, despite the police repression, beatings, tear gas canisters and water cannons, protesters insisted on roaming Parisian streets, from Place de la République to the Opera Square, in huge peaceful marches, which soon turned into a massacre.
Papon probably thought he was still in Algeria not in Paris, so he ordered shooting the peaceful unarmed protesters with live ammunition.
The massacre took place in the courtyard of the police headquarters, during which about 300 Algerians were killed, some of whom were thrown into the River Seine alive, including a 15-year-old girl and her mother.
Others were killed in the grounds of the Palais des Sports (an arena at Paris’s southern edge) and in the Paris Expo Porte de Versailles (an exhibition and conference center). Dozens were deliberately killed in the streets and subway stations, and more than 2,300 people were injured, while 400 people were forcibly disappeared.
The police also arrested 14,000 immigrants, some of whom were Arabs, Africans and Europeans and, after the massacre, the prisoners were tortured.
Controversy over Number of Victims
The old official version reported only three deaths, including a man who died of a heart attack. But in 1998, the French government admitted that the brutal crackdown left 40 dead. However, eyewitnesses from the French and Algerians at the time unanimously agreed on 300 dead.
Algerian officials affirm that 400 were killed, of whom 64 were thrown by the police in River Seine. Some were tied and their bodies floated for a few days along the river, in the worst scenes in the history of the state of human rights.
Official documents and eyewitness accounts at the Paris Police Department indicated that Papon himself directed the 1961 massacre.
Police records revealed that he called on officers in one of the centers to “destroy and kill” in order to suppress the demonstrations. He assured them that they would be protected from persecution if they participated in suppressing the protesters and armed them with automatic machine guns, rifles, batons and automatic pistols.
The Official French Stance
France hesitated for decades to disclose this heinous crime, and all French presidents avoided this matter and refused to recognize the massacre.
General Charles de Gaulle refused to apologize, even though he granted independence to Algeria, ending a 132-year occupation during which Algerian “mujahideen” sacrificed 1.5 million martyrs in the war of liberation.
Georges Pompidou, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, Francois Mitterrand and even the Gaullist Arab friend Jacques Chirac refused to apologize, and so did the far right Nicolas Sarkozy.
The French state has not yet acknowledged its responsibility for the killing of Algerian demonstrators, but local officials timidly commemorated the incident.
In 2001, the mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe, inaugurated a monument at the Pont Saint-Michel in memory of the victims of October 17.
On Sunday the 17th of this month, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, the presidential candidate of France’s Socialist party, organized a ceremony to commemorate the 60th anniversary which was attended by the victims’ children, parliamentarians representing the left and right wings, and elected representatives of the French nation.
The French Acknowledgement
In 2012, Hollande was the first president to recognize the “bloody repression” in 1961.
He expressed solidarity with the families of the victims, underscoring the importance of recalling the facts.
“This incident has been hidden for a long time from our historical accounts,” he said on the 51st anniversary of the October 17 massacre.
Hollande’s recognition was vehemently slammed by the head of the conservative UMP party in parliament, Christian Jacob, who accused the Socialist leader of stirring up divisions by appearing to implicate the state in the massacre.
“While denying the events of October 17, 1961, and forgetting the victims is out of the question, it is unacceptable to blame the state police and with them the whole Republic,” Jacob said in a statement.
Hollande was the first president to acknowledge this disaster but without apologizing.
“On October 17, 1961, Algerians who were protesting for independence were killed in a bloody repression,” Hollande wrote in an official communique.
“The Republic recognizes these facts with clarity. Fifty-one years after this tragedy, I pay tribute to the memory of the victims,” he said, ending decades of official silence over the massacre.
Macron: Inexcusable Crimes for the French Republic
In 2017, Macron described colonization as a “crime against humanity” during a visit to Algeria, sparking outrage back home among conservative and far-right parties.
“It’s a crime. It’s a crime against humanity,” he stressed. “It’s truly barbarous and it’s part of a past that we need to confront by apologizing to those against whom we committed these acts.”
“At the same time, we must not sweep this past under the rug.”
“Yes, there was torture in Algeria, but there was also the emergence of a state, of wealth, of a middle class. That’s the reality of colonization. There were civilized elements and barbarous elements,” he said in an interview with a French newspaper.
“I think it is unacceptable to glorify colonialism,” he said, noting that some wanted to do that in France for more than a decade, similarly to the law of February 23, 2005.
Macron’s office said in January that he has ruled out issuing an official apology for abuses in Algeria, ahead of a major report by historian Benjamin Stora on how France is facing up to its colonial past in the country.
There will be “no repentance nor apologies” for the occupation of Algeria or the bloody eight-year war that ended French rule, Macron’s office said, adding that the French leader would instead take part in “symbolic acts” aimed at promoting reconciliation.
For the first time after 60 years of the massacre, Macron observed a minute of silence in the memory of the victims at the bridge over the Seine at Bezons, on the outskirts of Paris where the protest started.
The ceremony was attended by the families affected by this tragedy, those who fought for the recognition of the truth, and the grandchildren of the victims.
Macron, the first French president to attend a memorial ceremony for those killed, also laid a wreath on the banks of the Seine and threw some flowers into the water, while other participants released pigeons into the sky.
According to Elysee Palace, the ceremony was held at the place where some Algerians had started their march and where many bodies were recovered from the Seine.
In this context, the Presidency told the Majalla correspondent that “this does not mean rewriting or reinventing history.”
“He admitted the facts: the crimes committed that night under the authority of Maurice Papon are inexcusable for the Republic,” Elysee Palace said.
He didn’t prefer his recognition to be directly through a speech in order not to lose a large number of his voters just seven months before the presidential elections.
However, Elysee issued a statement noting that on “October 17, 1961, the Paris federation of the Algerian National Liberation Front staged a protest against a night curfew applied only to Muslims from Algeria. However, more than 25,000 men, women and children marched the streets. French police brutally cracked down on protesters. The repression was brutal, violent and bloody. Nearly 12,000 Algerians were arrested and transferred to sorting centers at the Pierre de Coubertin Stadium, the Palais des Sports and other places. In the following hours and days, dozens were injured and bodies were found in the River Seine. Many families never found the remains of their loved ones who disappeared that night.”
The massacre, which took place during the war against French rule in Algeria, was long denied or concealed by French authorities.
“France is looking at all its history with lucidity and recognizes responsibilities that have been clearly established,” Macron tweeted.
“It owes it first and foremost to itself, to all those who have bruised their bodies and souls because of the Algerian war and the succession of crimes it has committed from all aspects. It owes this in particular to its youth, so that they are not confined to the struggles of memories and can build their future with respect and appreciation for all,” he added.
Macron’s move comes in line with his commitment to celebrate three key dates recommended by Stora’s report and represents a historic step in recognizing the massacre in an attempt to calm memories of colonialism and the Algerian war that affected bilateral ties for decades.
It is noteworthy that Macron’s recent approach on Algeria will greatly contribute to gaining the votes of French people of Algerian origin, who amount to more than six million in France.
Macron’s acknowledgement of France’s crimes did not appeal to some hardline political elites, especially his rival in the upcoming presidential elections, Michel Barney, who has a different opinion in this regard.
“The President should not have apologized and bear the responsibility for the history of his country and should avoid excessive repentance and apology,” Barney stressed.
The 93-year-old founder of France’s main far-right party, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the father of Marine Le Pen who heads the French National Rally party, slammed Macron’s commemoration of the massacre.
“Macron has become guilty of participating in defaming the history of his country and its security forces,” stressing that only three people had died. He dismissed the figure announced by Algeria and its allies in the French Communist Party.
Paris Mayor Takes Different Path from Predecessor
Paris police chief Didier Lalman laid a wreath near the Seine on Sunday, the 60th anniversary of the massacre of Algerians under his predecessor Maurice Papon.
“He is the first Paris police chief to honor the memory of the Algerian victims,” the Paris police command wrote.
The French-Algerian reconciliation process seems to be protracted and still unfinished since several issues need to be resolved first.
Among these are the official apology for crimes committed during 132 years, compensation for the looting of the African country’s resources during that period, compensation for the families of 1.5 million martyrs in the war of liberation, as well as the apology and compensation for France’s nuclear bomb explosions in the Algerian desert, where many people still suffer from cancerous diseases and malformations.
Is it time for the state to shoulder its responsibilities and halt its vague statements after it offered generous apologies to its African and Jewish victims? This is what the upcoming events will reveal.