France – The Paris massacre of 17 October 1961
The massacre by the police of hundreds of North Africans in Paris on 17 October 1961 is one of the remaining hidden stains on French twentieth century history. In a feature article written specially for Searchlight, the French anti-fascist researcher Henri Lorrain explains the background and events of that fateful day.
Background to brutality
The Algerian war, one of the most brutal postwar anti-imperialist conflicts, began in 1954 with an uprising against French colonisation. At first, several Algerian organisations, some in open conflict with each other and all with different aims, were fighting French domination but it was the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), created by Ben Bella in Cairo in 1954, which eventually became the main force of resistance and formed the first provisional government of the Algerian Republic in 1958.
The FLN's objective was complete independence from France, an ambition it aimed to achieve through armed struggle against the tens of thousands of French military personnel occupying Algeria.
In 1961, after three years of savage war involving FLN attacks, French reprisals and FLN counter-reprisals, the urgent need for a negotiated settlement to the Algerian conflict was widely recognised, not least in France where the growing body count of French soldiers was causing serious alarm among politicians and population alike. On 20 May 1961, formal negotiations between the French government and the provisional government of the Algerian Republic officially opened in a bid to extricate France “honourably” from the bloodshed and spare it the humiliation that had occurred seven years earlier when French forces had suffered an ignominious defeat in Vietnam.
From the outset it was obvious that the talks between the FLN and the French government, led by the French war hero General Charles de Gaulle, could have only one outcome, the creation of an internationally recognised and independent Algerian state, and that the main purpose of the discussions was to work out the exact terms for independence. They culminated in the Evian Agreements under which Algeria finally gained freedom a year later.
Even after the talks to end the conflict were under way, the atmosphere between the two sides remained murderous until the end. Nothing perhaps symbolises this more clearly than the earlier appointment of Maurice Papon as chief of the Paris police in 1958. He had been given the job under the Fourth Republic but was allowed to stay in post in President de Gaulle's newly constituted Fifth Republic. For those who favoured repression as an instrument of state, Papon, chosen after the Paris police staged a series of violent demonstrations against “terrorism”, was the ideal person, because of the “efficiency” he had shown in his previous post, the prefecture of Constantine in eastern Algeria, from 1956 to 1958.
There Papon had installed a repressive regime in which torture was systematic and summary executions commonplace. Not surprisingly, as soon as he became head of the Paris police, violence against the city's North African population became the norm as part of a strategy of counter-terror against FLN bomb attacks and assassinations in mainland France.
One of Papon's innovations was the creation of a violence-prone auxiliary police force composed almost entirely of Harkis – Algerians who had fought with the French army against the FLN in Algeria – who were fond of using torture against their fellow Maghrebins. To facilitate the brutal role of the Harkis, Papon opened a detention centre where “suspect” North Africans could be detained without trial at the stroke of a police bureaucrat's pen.
In a matter of weeks, the reputation of the Harkis became even more terrifying after people detained by them during police operations, raids and checks disappeared. The families of innocent victims filed numerous complaints of torture and murder but, despite an avalanche of damning evidence, testimony by doctors about obvious signs of torture and an increasing number of disappearances, few complaints ever reached the courts.
Thanks to Papon and his right-wing and Harki henchmen, the entire North African population in Paris was subjected to a reign of vicious terror and bloody repression, maintained through daily intimidation, frequent night and dawn raids by mobile police snatch squads and the constant presence of Harki patrols in their neighbourhoods.
Papon's regime of mounting violence added to the already very harsh situation of North African workers in the metropolis. Most of them were single and had been drafted into France in batches to meet the demands of big industrial enterprises that were suffering crippling labour shortages. As a result of the death tolls of the Second World War and its two colonial wars in Vietnam and Algeria, France was desperately short of manpower and France's industrial and financial giants viewed the rural populations of Algeria and Morocco as the perfect docile labour force.
Little care was afforded to these new workers, who were forced to live in cheap hotels in Paris or in the bidonville shantytowns that had mushroomed in the city's suburbs. Overpopulation and enforced loneliness were the result not simply of poverty but also of the racist refusal by French property owners to allow them to rent flats. Algerian immigrants in Paris were also to some extent intimidated by the FLN underground which forced them to contribute money to “the cause” or risk death.
August 1961 to the October curfew
Raids and house searches increased and acts of violence and arbitrary detention intensified in August 1961, in a police offensive that commenced several weeks after the FLN had ended its bomb attacks in Paris and its surrounding region.
At the same time, bombings by the right-wing, racist and colonialist Organisation Armée Secrète (OAS) became more and more frequent. The bombings were sometimes directed at hotels where Algerians were living. The OAS, was created in Algiers after a failed military coup against President de Gaulle in 1961. Commanded by a gaggle of treacherous generals and inveterate imperialist politicians, it rallied rogue soldiers, fanatical colonialists and all manner of fascist extremists to the flag of violent, terrorist opposition to Algerian independence.
By the end of August 1961, the North African population of Paris, not least the Algerians, had had enough of police and OAS terror and the FLN decided to retaliate by resuming its attacks in the city. Policemen were particularly targeted, and 11 were killed and 17 wounded between the end of August and the beginning of October. As the renewed spate of FLN attacks reached its height, three police unions created a “permanent committee for co-ordination and defence” and demanded immediate execution of Maghrebin convicts already on death row and the imposition of a curfew on North Africans.
A wave of mass arrests and armed police raids began in September and many of those taken into police custody disappeared. Rumours about corpses of North Africans found floating in the river Seine began to circulate, striking terror into the immigrant population.
In response to pressure from police officers, who had started to talk about “carrying out justice themselves”, Papon delivered an ominous message at the funeral of a police officer on 2 October, saying, “for each blow we receive, we will strike back tenfold”. Later he assured officers that if they shot first they would be “covered”.
Three days later, he made his meaning doubly clear by imposing a curfew on “French Algerian Muslims”. Despite claims to the contrary from the French Interior Ministry, Papon's racist curfew institutionalised the confusion between “Algerian” and “criminal”.
The demonstration of 17 October
With tension rising massively, the FLN decided to organise a boycott of Papon's curfew on 17 October and on 7 October ordered a halt to the campaign of violence in the city. This move marked a complete change of strategy as the boycott was aimed at winning over war-weary French public opinion. Whereas the bombings and gun attacks were acts of war carried out in a clandestine manner, the boycott had to be a peaceful demonstration of civil disobedience conducted in broad daylight.
The FLN's guidance was unambiguous. Defiance of the curfew was to cover the whole of Paris, be openly displayed on the city's main boulevards and involve whole families wherever possible. The anti-curfew protesters were instructed to ignore all provocations and desist from acts of violence. To ensure this, FLN personnel searched participants for illicit weapons before the protest. All Algerians in the Paris region were ordered to participate, and even threatened with death if they refused, in an attempt by the FLN's mainland organisation not only to illustrate its influence and control over its compatriots but also to force the French to recognise the existence of a sovereign Algerian people.
The leaders of the French branch of the FLN were also convinced that the harsh repression that would result from flouting the curfew would reveal the violence of the French state and the legitimacy of the Algerian people's independence struggle.
Matters began to come to a head on the morning of 17 October. The police had been informed that mass protests were planned for the evening and Papon's reaction was to flood Paris with police. Police vehicles patrolled the streets and officers sealed suburban Metro entrances, ready to arrest demonstrators.
At the Étoile and Opéra underground stations, in the corridors of Concorde station and on the main boulevards of central Paris, demonstrators were routinely, systematically and savagely beaten up by gendarmes using truncheons, rifle butts and clubs, leaving many battered senseless. The police showed no inhibitions, lashing out at the faces, stomachs and genital areas of demonstrators who, following the FLN's instructions, offered no physical resistance. On the Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle, on the bridges of Neuilly, Argenteuil and elsewhere, police shot randomly and wildly at the protesters and on Saint-Michel bridge, as well as on bridges on the outskirts of Paris, they hurled Algerians into the cold waters of the Seine.
For several hours, Paris was in the grip of no less than a police riot conducted with the complicity and, in some places, the participation of the French population. Later it emerged that police feeling had been whipped up even before the Algerian protest began by the simple device of broadcasting on police radio the lie that ten policemen had been killed.
This stratagem gave Papon, who was personally monitoring the police operation and even went to the Étoile to check out its “proper execution”, his long-awaited chance to exact bloody vengeance on the Algerian population. He had been informed of all police radio communications and, although he was fully aware of the incorrect information, did nothing to deny or refute it. More than ten thousand Algerians were subsequently arrested and detained in various pre-planned locations (the Palais des Sports, the Parc des Expositions, the Stade Coubertin, the Centre d'Identification at Vincennes) for nearly four days. During their detention they were subjected to yet more violence. On their arrival at the custody centres, the protesters were made to run the police gauntlet. The victims of this were perhaps the more fortunate. A considerable and to this day still unknown number were summarily executed and many people died of untreated injuries.
The day after the protest, under conditions of a media conspiracy of silence, the official announcement stated that two Algerians had died and reported that there had been “gun fights” between the police and anti-curfew demonstrators.
The precise death toll remains unknown but it is now generally accepted that between 200 and 300 people were killed, 50 of whom were shot or bludgeoned to death in the courtyard of the Paris police headquarters.
The French government rigidly controlled information about the events from the outset. Newspapers and film footage were censored, cameras were confiscated, access to the detention centres was forbidden to journalists and eyewitnesses were silenced with threats of prosecution.
Despite the efforts of mainly Communist MPs, the government was able to block any attempt to establish a Commission of Inquiry and all official complaints lodged by Algerians were quietly rejected. In an age before computers, the internet, mobile phone and even mass television coverage, the French authorities were able to get away with murder.
The struggle to establish the truth and persuade the French state fully to admit its crimes is unfinished. During the 1970s the events of 17 October were completely taboo, together with everything else relating to the Algerian war. After the electoral victories of the left in the 1980s, the straitjacket started to loosen a little and small groups of courageous intellectuals and journalists started working to reveal the truth which President Mitterrand and his Parti Socialiste were avoiding like the plague.
Jean-Luc Einaudi was denied access to the state archives during his research for his book on the massacre in 1991 and it was only in 1997 that Lionel Jospin's government ordered an official inquiry and two years later granted limited access to the archives. Access, especially to the Paris police archives, is still severely restricted and the official inquiry put the number of dead at “no more than forty”.
The French state has still made no official admission of its crime and this bloodstained page of French history remains to be written.
Communication from the chief of police in Paris, Maurice Papon, 5 October 1961 (extracts)
“In order to put an end promptly to the criminal acts of the terrorists, new measures have been decided by the police. To facilitate the implementation of these measures, Algerian workers are strongly advised not to circulate in the streets of Paris and its suburbs at night, especially between 8.30 pm and 5.30 am. … Moreover, it has been noticed that terrorist acts are most often perpetrated by groups of three or four men. Therefore, it is very strongly recommended to French Algerian Muslims that they circulate alone, small groups being at risk of appearing suspect to police patrols. Finally, the chief of police has decided that cafés run or frequented by French Algerian Muslims must close at 7pm every day.”
A declaration from Republican policemen, 31 October 1961 (extracts)
"We have a duty to bring forward testimony and alert public opinion about what happened on 17 October 1961 and the days following. We cannot keep silent any longer about these odious acts which risk becoming frequent and are a stain on the honour of the whole police corps. … All those guilty must be punished. Punishment must reach all the responsible persons, those who give orders and those who let it happen, no matter how high in the hierarchy. We have a duty to speak out.
Some facts about 17 October
“Among the thousands of Algerians taken to the Parc des Expositions, tens were killed with rifle butts and pick handles, dying from blows to the head, from rupture of the spleen or liver and broken limbs. … At one end of the Neuilly bridge policemen and at the other the CRS [French riot police] slowly met. The Algerians trapped between them were all beaten and thrown into the Seine. More than one hundred of them … The same kind of things happened at the Saint-Michel bridge. Bodies of victims are being found daily. They bear the marks of blows and strangulation. … At police headquarters, a small courtyard was full of dead bodies. Torturers threw tens of bodies into the Seine, which is a few metres away, to prevent forensic doctors from examining them. They stole watches and money. M. Papon, chief of the police, and M. Legay, director of the police, attended these horrible events. … We do not sign this text and we sincerely regret that. We sadly realise that the current situation does not make it possible. We hope nonetheless to be understood and to be able quickly to reveal our signatures without it being an act of useless heroism. We address this letter to the President of the Republic, members of the government, Members of Parliament (representatives and senators), members of the local council, religious leaders, representatives of the press, the trade unions, writers and artists.”
MAURICE PAPON, a bloodstained bureaucrat
Maurice Papon, born on 3 September 1910, studied law, sociology and psychology at university and at the age of 20 entered the civil service, joining the Ministry of the Interior in 1935. Clever and ambitious, he rose rapidly through its ranks.
During the Nazi occupation of France, he served as an official of the collaborationist Vichy government. In 1942, at the age of 31, he took over the powerful position of General Secretary of the Prefecture of the Gironde region. This position gave him responsibility for Jewish affairs and he authorised the deportation of nearly 2,000 Jews. Nearly all of them died in Hitler's death camps.
In mid-1944, when it was evident that the war had turned against the Germans, Papon began to inform on the Nazis to the Resistance, for which he was later decorated with the treasured Carte d'Ancien Combattant de la Résistance.
After the war, despite the opposition of former Resistance fighters in the Gironde, Papon pursued his government career both in France and Algeria. He returned to the political foreground as chief of police in Paris from 1958 to 1967. He oversaw the slaughter of 17 October 1961 and the more infamous, but less terrible, repression of the demonstration of 8 February 1962 in which the police killed eight people at the Charonne metro station during a left-wing demonstration against the French war in Algeria. Papon then moved into politics, going on to serve as President Valery Giscard d'Estaing's Budget Minister in the 1970s.
In 1981, the past came back to haunt him after hundreds of wartime documents were found by chance in Bordeaux city hall. Among them were deportation orders signed by Papon. Some of the incriminating material was published by the satirical paper Le Canard Enchaîné. Legal proceedings that began in 1983 forced Papon to leave public life because of the scandal. It was not until October 1997 that the charges against Papon came to what turned out to be the longest trial in French history. The trial was scheduled to end by Christmas 1997, but long delays were caused by numerous factors, including technicalities, the large number of witnesses and prosecution parties involved and Papon's poor health. Papon was eventually sentenced to ten years' imprisonment.
His lawyers appealed for his release on the grounds of his age and alleged poor health. On 18 September 2002 a court granted this request.
In 1991, Jean-Luc Einaudi, published his ground-breaking book La bataille de Paris, a very precise account of the events of the 17 October 1961, based on testimony by members of the FLN, the police, cemetery registers, etc. Einaudi concluded that several hundred Algerians were killed and that Papon was administratively responsible. Papon sued him for libel because of a passage stating that on 17 October 1961 the police killed “on the orders of the chief of police Papon”. Einaudi was a prosecution witness at Papon's trial.
In March 1999, a Paris court threw out Papon's case therefore conceding de facto that a massacre had happened and that Papon was somehow involved. Nonetheless, the former Vichy bureaucrat and deporter of Jews has never faced a court for his role in October 1961. A note on sources
Several French non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are still fighting for truth and justice about the massacre of 17 October 1961. This report is based on the articles of Charlotte Nordmann and Jérôme Vidal, both members of 17 octobre 1961: contre l'oubli (17 October 1961: Against forgetting).
Its contact details are, 17 octobre 1961: contre l'oubli
159 boulevard du Montparnasse, 75006 Paris, France.
Website (in French): http://17octobre1961.free.fr 17 octobre 1961: contre l'oubli has produced a book in French going further into the details of the massacre with documents and testimonies and examining the consequences of the denial of this crime in French society. Le 17 octobre 1961, un crime d'Etat à Paris is published by La Dispute, Paris, September 2001.