Co-editors: Seán Mac Mathúna John Heathcote
Consulting editor: Themistocles Hoetis
Field Correspondent: Allen Hougland
Some publications in France that tried to reveal the truth were censored. Temps Modernes, the magazine of Jean-Paul Sartre, the philosopher and author, called the episode "a pogrom". Papon had the edition seized.
MAURICE PAPON, the former minister accused of deporting more than 1,500 Jews to Nazi death camps during the war, is facing renewed allegations about a further atrocity: the massacre of hundreds of Algerians in the centre of Paris by police under his command in the 1960s. Like the deportations that led to his trial for crimes against humanity, the massacre has been covered up for decades with the connivance of the French establishment. But as Papon's appearance in court last week forced France to confront the secrets of the wartime Vichy government he served, claims about his role in the Paris killings focused attention on another dark period in the country's history.
In 1961, during the Algerian war of independence, Papon, then chief of police, imposed a curfew in the capital after the murder of 11 of his officers by nationalists. The Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), which had orchestrated the attacks, responded by organising a protest march. Up to 40,000 Algerians answered the call to demonstrate on the night of October 17. What happened next has never been established precisely. The official version was that three people died in clashes between police and demonstrators. At a cabinet meeting afterwards, President Charles de Gaulle described the deaths as a matter of "secondary" concern, by comparison with a resolution of the Algerian crisis. The reality, according to Constantin Melnik, an adviser on police matters to the then prime minister Michel Debre, was that at least 200 - and probably closer to 300 - people were slaughtered by Papon's police, who were intent on avenging the deaths of their colleagues. His claim is supported by demonstrators, observers and police officers.
The recollections of Saad Ouazene, a 29-year-old foundry worker and FLN organiser at the time, are among the most vivid. "We told the workers to descend on Paris, but we didn't know what was waiting for us. People flooded into the city," he said. At the crowded exit to the Concorde Metro station, police began striking people over the head with clubs. Ouazene's skull was fractured. "I saw people collapse in pools of blood. Some were beaten to death," he said. "The bodies were thrown onto lorries and tossed into the Seine from the Pont de la Concorde. If I hadn't been strong I'd never have got out alive. "Daniel Mermet, a French radio presenter who watched the protest at another bridge, said: "The demonstrators were charged by the police and everybody ran. I saw a guy climb over the parapet of the bridge and try to hide. A cop spotted him and started laying into him. A second policeman joined in, and they beat him until he fell into the water like a stone." Similar scenes occurred at other points around the city.
According to a number of shocked policemen, an estimated 50 people were killed in the courtyard of the Paris police headquarters alone. Joseph Gommenginger, who was on duty, said: "As Algerians got out of the buses at the Porte de Versailles, they were clubbed over the head." He appealed to a senior officer to stop the brutality. The officer "just turned his back on me", he said. "Those carrying out the attacks even threatened me. They had all removed their numbers from their uniforms. I was revolted. I never thought police could do such things. We were supposed to be guardians of the peace. "Police records show that Papon told officers at one station that they must be "subversive" in the war against their opponents. "You will be covered, I give you my word," he said. In the days following the massacre, dozens of bodies were taken from the Seine as far down river as Rouen.
Jean-Luc Einaudi, a historian specialising in the period, is convinced that Papon was directly and personally responsible for the events. "He was in overall charge of the operation. He was on the scene, and later in the command post," Einaudi said. Papon requisitioned transport authority buses - a measure that had last been adopted for the round-up of Jews under the Vichy - Einaudi claimed. When the buses were returned, he said, they were covered in blood. Attempts to bring the massacre to public attention were largely stifled at the time. Some publications that tried to reveal the truth were censored. Temps Modernes, the magazine of Jean-Paul Sartre, the philosopher and author, called the episode a pogrom. Papon had the edition seized.
As recently as October last year, on the 35th anniversary of the massacre, copies of the Algerian daily Liberte - which examined Papon's role in the slaughter, were confiscated by customs officers at Lyons airport. The interior minister who ordered the seizure was Jean-Louis Debre, the son of the former prime minister. At a city council meeting 10 days after the massacre, direct questions put to Papon went unanswered. "The Parisian police did what they had to do," was his only comment. When the issue was raised in the National Assembly and the Senate, political pressure was brought to bear to ensure that no official inquiry was held. "For this to happen in a country like France, which suffered the brutality of Nazism, is a national disgrace," said Hachemi Cherhabil, an Algerian mechanic who was also at the demonstration. "They reproduced the same behaviour. I don't accuse the French people".
But some officers acted the same way as Nazis. "Some believe the killings were an attempt to destabilise secret negotiations between the Paris government and the Algerian nationalists by those who wanted Algeria to remain a French colony. Veronique Carrion-Bastok, a Socialist deputy, has written to Lionel Jospin, the prime minister, urging his government to recognise the responsibility of the French state for the massacre. "I want to lift the amnesia which surrounds this affair," she said. "Papon did not act alone - he had the tacit approval of the government of the day." Carrion-Bastok has also demanded that the official archives relating to the episode be opened to historians. Failing this,she feared Papon, 87, who was granted bail for his trial in Bordeaux after treatment for a heart ailment last week, may take the secrets of October 17, 1961, to his grave.
© THE SUNDAY TIMES, 1997