"Here they drown Algerians." Conti quay in Paris, a few days after the massacre of October 17th 1961

Long history of a forgotten massacre

Exactly 50 years ago today, between 100 and 200 Algerians, who were taking part in a peaceful demonstration, were murdered by Paris police. After decades of official cover-up, the collective memory of the events of 17 October 1961 is finally being restored.

Published on 17 October 2011 at 15:08
DR Jean Texier  | "Here they drown Algerians." Conti quay in Paris, a few days after the massacre of October 17th 1961

During the 1970s and 1980s, the memory of 17 October 1961 was enveloped in a thick shroud. At the time, it seemed that there were no traces of that autumn day when unarmed men, women and children, who had turned out to protest with their families in the streets of Paris, were bludgeoned to death by policemen wielding rifle butts, thrown into the Seine, or hanged and left to die in the woods.

"It is quite simply one of only a handful of occasions since the 19th century when police opened fire on workers in Paris," remarks historian Benjamin Stora. In the weeks that followed, the swollen faced corpses of dozens of Algerians were fished out of the Seine. Benjamin Stora believes that the repression resulted in a hundred deaths, for English historian Jim House there were "at the very least" 120 or 130, while the author of La Bataille de Paris, Jean-Luc Einaudi, claims there were more than 150.

On that day, the "French Muslims of Algeria" had turned out in response to a call from the French wing of the FLN to protest against a curfew imposed by the head of Parisian police and former Vichy official, Maurice Papon. Approximately, 20,000 men, women and children from a population that was usually confined to shantytowns in the city’s suburbs joined peaceful marches in the Latin Quarter, on the Grands Boulevards, and close to the Champs-Elysées in central Paris.

The violence in response to these protests was unprecedented: large numbers of police waited for demonstrators at Metro exits and in the streets, where they were beaten and insulted. "With my own eyes, I saw them continue to beat the weakest ones who were already bleeding until they were dead," recounted Saad Ouazen in 1997. In spite of the fact that they offered no resistance, dozens of demonstrators were shot, while others were drowned in the Seine. A total of more than 11,000 Algerians were arrested and transferred to the Palais des sports and the Stade Pierre-de-Coubertin.

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Silence of French society

In the days that followed, they were held in deplorable conditions in these packed sports arenas, where they were violently beaten by police who called them "dirty wogs" and "coons". In the Palais des sports, terrified internees did not dare to ask to use the toilets, when they found that most of those who did were killed. The next day, officials announced that there had been three deaths — two Algerians and one native of Metropolitan France. This lie was accepted as fact, and silence about the real events of 17 October was to remain unbroken for 20 years.

For Benjamin Stora, the prolonged ignorance about the massacre of 17 October 1961 is hardly surprising. "In that period, there was a huge lack of awareness about those peoples who were referred to as immigrants and natives, that is to say of anyone that was not included in the French mainstream. How could you expect a nation with that kind of mentality to take an interest in immigrants living in shantytowns in the Paris region? The Algerians were simply “invisible” to the rest of French society."

In the months that followed 17 October, this indifference was compounded by a cover-up. Accounts that did not comply with the official version of events were censored. In 1962, the amnesty that accompanied the independence of Algeria sealed the silence of French society: all the complaints filed about the day were dismissed.

In spite of this silence, the memory of 17 October survived in a fragmented form beneath the surface, especially among the Algerian immigrants in the Paris region. "Those men spoke about what happened among themselves, but most of them did not pass on the memory to their children,” explains English historian Jim House. “In the 1980s, they knew their children would remain in France, and they were afraid that exposure to accounts of police violence would compromise their future."

Papon - "an unfortunate evening"

However, this memory landscape was set to change with the coming of age of the second generation of Algerian immigrants — young people who had attended school in France, who were French voters and citizens, but who nonetheless had an intuition that the prejudices and disdainful looks they were forced to endure were linked to the Algerian war.

Little by little, the memory was gradually resuscitated: in the 1980s, Jean-Luc Einaudi made the massacre the focus of an immense research project. Thereafter, his book, which was published on the 30th anniversary of 17 October, plunged France into a state of shock: La Bataille de Paris, which gave an hour by hour account of the events of that day as they happened, prompted a major debate on the repression of Algerians.

With this account and a number of other books, the memory of 17 October 1961 began to emerge in public consciousness, where it was further boosted by two documentaries — Le Silence du fleuve (The silence of the river) by Agnès Denis and Mehdi Lallaoui, released in 1991, and Une journée portée disparue (Drowning by Bullets) by Philip Brooks and Alan Hayling. However, the authorities of this period continued to cling to the official version of events.

In the wake of historians and activists, the courts began to play a role in the revival: on the occasion of the 1997 trial of Maurice Papon, who faced charges relating to his role in the Vichy government, the magistrates paid special attention to the events of 17 October 1961. Confronted by Jean-Luc Einaudi, the former Paris police chief finally admitted that there were "15 or 20 deaths" in the course of that "unfortunate evening," but claimed that these were due to a settling of scores between Algerians.

Jigsaw of collective memory

For the first time ever, the government made a gesture, when Prime Minister Lionel Jospin opened the archives. In 1998, an investigation solely based on medical records — in the absence of official reports by police and Seine river police which had mysteriously disappeared — concluded that there were at least 32 deaths.

Two years later, Maurice Papon decided to sue Jean-Luc Einaudi for libel. This time around, Papon admitted there were 30 deaths, but he failed to win in court. Remarking on the "serious, relevant and comprehensive" nature of Jean-Luc Einaudi’s research, the judges noted that "in a bid to seek revenge, a relatively large number of security forces acted with extreme violence."

With the official version of the events of 17 October now in tatters, the next step was more appropriate comemmoration. In 2001, exactly 40 years after the massacre, the Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, unveiled a plaque on the Saint-Michel bridge "in memory of the many Algerians who died in the bloody repression of a peaceful demonstration on 17 October 1961." In the Paris region, the collective memory of the bloodshed is now commemorated by approximately 20 plaques.

The jigsaw of the collective memory of what happened on 7 October, 1961, has finally been reassembled. But for many it is not complete: one piece of the puzzle, full recognition by the state, is still missing.

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