17 October 1961

On the 17th of October 1961, 50 years ago to the day, France-residing Algerians gathered in Paris for a non-violent demonstration in support of Algeria’s independence.

Between 20,000 and 30,000 men, women and children, dressed in their best Sunday clothes, many coming from the outer suburban slums where France crammed its growth-fueling immigrant workforce in the 60s, were marching peacefully toward the centre of the city, when municipal police forces charged into crowds, raiding isolated groups, firing on people and making good use of their wooden clubs, murdering dozens of unarmed Algerians: shot, beaten to death or thrown into the Seine river… Weeks later, swollen corpses of Algerian protesters were still being fished out of the river or found hung to trees in nearby forests.

Lest you think the massacre was some incident borne out of the confusion of the moment: the exactions did not stop on that night, far from it. The Prefect of Police immediately gave orders for the forced “internment” of about 13,000 protesters: hauled by city buses to the Palais des Sports stadium (one can only guess the authorities begrudgingly made do without the recently decommissioned Vel’ d’Hiv’), where they were held for 3 days1 in sub-par conditions, routinely abused, tortured and occasionally executed by their police wardens.

In total, between 50 (official minimalist estimate of the time) and 250 (more realistic estimate made by contemporary historians) died during the protest and its aftermath, thousands were injured.

Not a single of the people involved in this carefully-organised massacre (or any of the many other exactions committed by French officials in their effort to keep their North-African colonial playground) were ever brought to justice, as the Independence-granting Évian accords signed a year later conveniently wiped the slate clean for everybody…

Oh yeaMaurice Papon, Paris’ Prefect of Police at the time, did get indicted 40 years later for Crimes against Humanity… but only because it turned out his stint as chief of police in the 60s was his second attempt at orchestrating police-backed massacres of civilian populations:

Long before killing immigrants and left-wingers made him the pride of his late 20th century superiors2, Mr. Papon was a very efficient civil servant at the “Service for Jewish Questions” in the nazi-collaborating Vichy regime, personally responsible for the deportation and ultimate extermination of a few thousand Jews. Lucky for him, it took only minimal efforts to convince post-war authorities that his sympathies had always been for the Resistance movement3, leading to a very successful career in the French administration, where his skills in implementing racist policies and interning civilians no doubt came to great use 20 years later.

It took about 40 years for the French government to officially acknowledge the massacre and a couple discreet plaques to be unveiled by the (first ever non-Conservative) mayor of Paris. I would not worry too much about French contemporary History textbooks: still way too busy promoting “the positive aspects of French colonisation4” to worry about things such as the widespread and institutionalised use of torture by the French army during the Algerian war5

Happy 50th anniversary of Paris Massacre of 1961.

  1. People had to be eventually let go on the 20th because, I kid you not, Ray Charles was scheduled to play that night. []
  2. Do not think for a moment that the aforementioned events sullied Mr. Papon’s successful political career as chief of police, which went unencumbered, and strewn with many other abuses of power, until 1967, when one political murder too many forced him to a peaceful retirement. []
  3. Most French people liked to think (still do) that the vast majority of the population had all been active Resistance members: it’s a miracle the German army was ever able to control the country for 4 years despite such widespread resistance. []
  4. aka “sure, we enslaved, tortured and killed a few, but, hey, we also brought these savages the wonders of Western civilisation.” []
  5. and there you thought late 20th Century massacres by Western Powers were the exclusive domain of countries like the United States. []

1 comment

  1. Interesting.

    Man, post-colonial countries have only had like, 40, 30 years of sane governance to even start building towards dignity, peace and justice and clueless internet trolls born in the 80s/90s are happy to dump on their civilizations, people, etc for not being beacons of prosperity and human rights just yet

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