Co-editors: Seán Mac Mathúna John Heathcote
Consulting editor: Themistocles Hoetis
Field Correspondent: Allen Hougland
At long last, the Paris parquet has declared that what occurred on 17 October 1961 was, indeed, a massacre. The hundreds of Algerian demonstrators - many of French nationality - who were shot in cold blood and their dead and dying bodies thrown into the Seine have at last received some recognition from the state which sanctioned both their murder and the subsequent cover-up - a cover-up which is still not entirely over.
These infamous events have returned to public attention courtesy of Maurice Papon, who in 1961 was chief of the Paris police. Papon has brought libel proceedings against the historian Jean-Luc Einaudi for a newspaper article in which he accused the police chief of ordering a racist massacre.
Details of the slaughter were long concealed from the public under the Evian Treaty of 1962, by which France recognised the independence of Algeria and - so to speak, "in return" - declared a general amnesty for all those who had participated in massacres or torture during the war, even if their identities were known. Although both the police and army of a supposedly democratic state were known to have acted in a way which would not have disgraced the bloodiest of tin-pot dictators, the promulgation of the amnesty effectively confused the matter of what they had actually done, by preventing judicial investigation. Perhaps now, 30 years later, we will hear an apology from French statesmen for their crimes against Algerians, in the same way that apologies have recently been offered for the crimes committed by the state against French Jews.
On 5 October 1961, Papon ordered a curfew on all Algerians, forbidding them to leave their homes in the suburbs at night. In response, the French Federation of the FLN called on its people to stage a peaceful demonstration through the Latin Quarter and along the Champs Elysée, bringing their families and children with them. Frightened of the prospect of a "North African invasion", and determined to maintain order at any cost, the French police prepared an ambush for the demonstrators to prevent them from penetrating the city. The bloody encounter was not limited to Paris itself, but extended to the suburb of Nanterre, where police opened fire on Algerians living in its vast shanty town. The chief of the Paris police at that time was Maurice Papon - the same man who had been in charge of the notorious Bordeaux police under the Vichy government.
A few years ago, France already found itself facing a crisis of conscience when, following a petition organised by French intellectuals and Jewish citizens, Papon was brought out of retirement to face trial, charged with sending thousands of Jews to their deaths in the Nazi camps between 1942 and 1943. Then, the French police had sought to round up every Jew living in Bordeaux - men, women and children - and pack them off to the butchers of Auchwitz.
Once Papon's trial was underway in Bordeaux, several Algerian intellectuals broached the case of 17 October, which is no less painful to France's conscience. A documentary film and book by Mahdi Allawi failed to attract much attention. Then, historian Jean-Luc Einaudi wrote an article in Le Monde on 20 May last year entitled "Le Massacre", in which he repeated the charge he had made in his 1991 book La Bataille de Paris that the French police had deliberately committed a racist massacre and a crime against humanity "on the orders" of Papon. Einaudi estimates the number of those killed at more than 200. Papon has claimed that only three died. He later revised his figure upwards, attributing the addition to a settling of accounts between warring Algerian factions.
Since the beginning of the trial many witnesses have come forward, some of them former policemen, others Frenchmen sympathetic to the Algerian revolution, to add to the volume of evidence against those responsible.
There is evidence that about 11,000 Algerian workers were arrested and interrogated under torture at French police stations during the war. Many of them died from the attentions of their interrogators, as historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet has documented in his book, La Torture dans la Republique. From 1954 to 1962, torture, motivated by a form of racist hatred, was commonplace, both in Algeria and in France. A few days before the Paris massacre Papon, attending the funeral of a policeman killed by the FLN, promised that "for every one of us killed, we will kill ten of them!" And that is exactly what came to pass a few days later.
In his statement to the Paris court, a former French policeman said that on the day of the massacre he saw French policemen throwing Algerians off the Clichy Bridge into the Seine, as well as beating unarmed demonstrators with batons and pistols. The pictures taken by leftist photographer Elie Kazan provide a vivid picture of the horrific brutality of the French police forces. Faced with such overwhelming evidence, Papon was reduced to claiming that the pictures had been faked by leftist activists.
Commenting on Papon's claim that the violence thus recorded was in fact violence between Algerians, Benjamin Stora, the leading historian of French colonialism in North Africa, told Le Monde that, by 1961, the FLN was the undisputed representative of the Algerian people, and the real danger of internecine violence lay in the emerging Franco-French war between the Organisation de l'Armée secrète, which wanted to maintain control of Algeria at any cost, and the French government under de Gaulle, which had decided to grant the country independence.
In Algeria, 17 October is commemorated as Immigration Day. In France, the memory of the event, along with that of a number of other brutally repressive attacks on Algerians during the 1950s, was largely repressed until 1991, the year which saw both the publication of Einaudi's book and the first informal demonstrations staged by second-generation Algerian immigrants in memory of their parents' suffering.
The final outcome of the Einaudi trial, which will be known on 28 March, is far from certain. Whatever it is, we can only hope that the process of law will at least lead to a renewed and more resounding condemnation of French colonialism. Perhaps this in turn can help cure Europe of its endemic racism and hatred of the Other. What happened on 17 October 1961 is not only a matter for historians and geriatric security officers. It is also an issue for the present and the future.
From Al-Ahram Weekly, 11 - 17 March 1999. Issue No. 420. Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875
© Al-Ahram, 1999