Exactly 51 years after one of the murkiest episodes in recent French history, French President François Hollande recognised on Wednesday the “bloody repression” of Algerian protesters by French police that took place in the heart of Paris on October 17, 1961.
On that fateful day, French police – under the leadership of Paris prefect Maurice Papon – brutally crushed peaceful demonstrations of Algerian anti-war protesters who had gathered in and around the French capital to protest against a French security crackdown in Algeria.
The incident occurred at the height of the Algerian war of independence, when the French colonial administration was locked in a bitter battle with the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) – the Algerian party fighting for the North African nation’s liberation from France.
More than half-a-century later, the details surrounding the October 17 massacre – including the casualty figures – remain murky. A day after the demonstrations, the left-leaning French newspaper Libération reported the official toll as two dead, several wounded and 7,500 arrests. The death toll, however, was disputed by the FLN, which claimed that dozens were killed. Many of the bodies were found floating in the River Seine.
The October 17, 1961 incident would have remained obscure were it not for the efforts of one man: French historian Jean-Luc Einaudi, who doggedly pursued the case and published the results in his book, “La Bataille de Paris” (“The Battle of Paris”).
In 1991, when Einaudi published his definitive account of the events of October 1961, it caused a stir across France. French people were horrified to hear the details of a massacre by French police in the heart of the capital.
Details surrounding the events of October 1961 unravelled in the course of a landmark 1997 case against Papon for his participation in the deportation of thousands of Jews to concentration camps during World War II. At that time, Papon was police chief in the south-western province of Bordeaux.
During the trial, Einaudi took to the stand to testify against Papon and the direct role he played as Paris police chief in the October 1961 massacres. In 1998, Papon was found guilty of complicity in crimes against humanity during World War II.
In an interview with FRANCE 24 days before the 51st anniversary of the October 17 massacre and President Hollande’s official recognition of the tragedy, Einaudi discussed the peculiar circumstances that made acknowledging the event a touchy subject in France.
Why has it been so difficult for France to officially recognise the killings in October 1961?
France has not yet officially recognized the crime for various reasons. The first is that French officials from that era have continued, for a long time, to occupy senior positions in French governments. Remember, Maurice Papon, who was Paris police chief in 1961, was a Cabinet minister right up to 1981.
In 1961, François Mitterrand was in the opposition. Once he became president [in 1981], Mitterrand did not dwell on events during the Algerian war – given his critical responsibilities as Interior and then Justice Minister during those years. There was a convergence of interests [within the French political establishment] to maintain a silence, a forgetfulness, a willful ignorance about this issue. It took a lot of research, the publication of books and a civil society movement to slowly uncover the truth.
I recall a crucial moment in 1999, when Maurice Papon filed a suit against me, which finally enabled the massacre to be recognized for the first time. This led to a gradual recognition of the events.
However, at the same time, the police chief responsible for these events [i.e. Papon] continued to try to impede the moves to raise awareness about this by lying and falsifying accounts.
On October 17, 2011, at an event on the Clichy bridge [on the outskirts of Paris, from where the mostly Algerian victims were thrown into the River Seine] presidential candidate François Hollande publicly promised to recognize this crime if he was elected president. He is now president of the republic. I expect him to meet his commitment.
Why are the events of October 1961 not well known by both French and Algerian youths?
In France, great strides have been made in raising awareness of the events. I’ve had many opportunities to talk about this issue to large gatherings, many of them comprised of students from different backgrounds, who have been very attentive.
I must also add that these events are now mentioned in [French] history books. But on these facts, like many others, the work must continue and will never be finished.
Regarding Algeria, internal conflict that followed independence [in 1962] have resulted, for many years, in sidelining, and even silence on, the role played by the Algerian diaspora, especially the Algerian immigrants in France during the Algerian war of independence. Too often, history has been manipulated for vested interests.
Do you think the events of October 1961 played a role in the Algerian war and the independence that Algeria finally won in 1962?
I think the October 17, 1961 massacre in Paris is one among many episodes of the Algerian war.
As such, it cannot be understood if we do not put it in the context of the war on Algerian territory.
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I would even say it cannot be understood if you do not bear in mind that France was in a state of colonial repression.
Senior officials, police, and security officials had been swimming in this ambiance for years and it had led to a characteristic mindset within the establishment. That said, the peculiarities of October 17 are twofold. On one hand, you have the emergence of an anti-colonial struggle in the very heart of the colonial power to support Algerian independence. On the other, you have a display of the full fury of the Paris police, a brutality that was the product of years of experience in the colonial war.
However, these events and the bloody repression did not decisively influence the negotiations between the French government and the Algerian provisional government [the government in exile that was set up during the Algerian independence war to represent the Algerian cause abroad, especially in international diplomatic circles].
[Then French President Charles] de Gaulle was determined to end this war, which isolated France internationally. The outcome had to be independence, which had the support of the vast majority of Algerians, including immigrants. The massacres of October 17 did not cause major reactions in France. They were largely concealed by official lies and overlooked due to public indifference. [French historian] Pierre Vidal-Naquet has called October 17, 1961, “the day that Paris did not stir”. I share this view.
This article was previously published on www.france24.com/en