“The police threw Algerians dead, knocked out or still alive in the Seine”

Sunday will mark the 60th anniversary of the massacre of October 17, 1961 in Paris. On this occasion, a demonstration is organized by a string of collectives and associations which demand the recognition of a state crime by the French authorities. To find out more about the event and its memorial issues, 20 Minutes interviewed historian Fabrice Riceputi, author ofHere we drowned the Algerians. Jean-Luc Einaudi’s battle for recognition of the police and racist massacre of October 17, 1961.

What are the origins of the October 17, 1961 massacre?

Originally, there was a call from the French federation of the FLN to tens of thousands of Algerian emigrants in the Paris region to brave the curfew announced 12 days earlier by the police prefect Maurice Papon. A curfew of 8:30 p.m. and 5:30 a.m. manifestly discriminatory since it only concerns those who are then called the French Muslims of Algeria (FMA). However, the police enforced it with great severity, which also provided it with an opportunity to control the Algerians in the Paris region. The watchword is not to hold a classic event but to show off in the beautiful districts of Paris with three targeted sectors: L’Etoile and the Champs-Elysées, Opéra-République, Latin Quarter. The demonstration is completely peaceful. People come with their families, dressed in Sunday attire.

Learning that this demonstration is going to take place, the prefect of police mobilizes several thousand agents with the instruction to prevent at “all costs” these Algerians from showing up. There are police forces equipped with weapons of war on the bridges of Paris such as the Pont de Neuilly by which the Algerians must arrive, in particular those who live in the immense slum of Folie in Nanterre. You should know that in August, a dozen police officers and harkis were shot dead by the FLN. It particularly upset a number of police officers and Papon did nothing to calm them down.

How is the day going?

In the afternoon, begins one of the biggest roundups in the history of France, since the prefecture announces that it has embarked in a few hours 11,500 demonstrators. It is preventive and arrest in the face. RATP buses are requisitioned – this is the first time since the Vel d’Hiv roundup in July 42 -, and people are locked up in places that are urgently requisitioned, such as the Palais des sports, Porte de Versailles or the Coubertin stadium. And there occurs extreme violence, with what is called the “reception committee” which is a police custom of the time when Algerians pass between two lines of police officers who bludgeon them.

In Paris, especially in the evening, when people begin to pour in who manage to bypass the roadblocks, the police kill demonstrators, by the dozen, with submachine guns, pistols, or “contraptions”, a long wooden baton that could split a skull without difficulty. And the police throw Algerians dead, knocked out or still alive in the Seine or in the Parisian canals. From midnight, while nothing is finished, the prefect of police releases a press release which definitively stops the official version which says that there were three deaths including a Frenchman and two Algerians killed at the bridge of Neuilly. This will remain the official version until today.

Is it possible to have an estimate of the number of deaths?

There are a number of bodies that were deposited at the Forensic Institute, others were buried on the sly, for example in the mass grave of unknown Muslims in Thiais. And there are the bodies that were not recovered from the Seine and the rivers. People later died from their injuries in hospital. Some who were expelled to Algeria where they were then locked up in camps guarded by the army where there were also disappearances. As a result, the balance sheet, long after, is not possible to establish precisely, especially since archives have disappeared, such as those of the river brigade responsible for recovering the bodies. What historians say is that we will never know the exact number of deaths, but they put forward a range for the day of October 17 alone, from the hundred dead to over two hundred.

What is the role played by Maurice Papon?

It is he who implements this massacre, who tells his agents that they would be covered no matter what. He learned the techniques of “colonial pacification” in Algeria, in Constantine where he had all the powers in eastern Algeria for several years. So he is there for that, his objective is to destroy the FLN in Paris. He called on the “auxiliary police forces”, Algerian harkis, to do the dirty work. They used to make murderous raids in the slums, with the use of torture.

What is the responsibility of the government of the day?

This is encouraged by Prime Minister Michel Debré, hostile to the independence of Algeria. He is at the top of the chain of command. Papon did not act on his own. Without a doubt, it is part of Debré’s strategy to attempt to sabotage the current negotiating process. As for de Gaulle, he lets it go. It is said that, when he learned what had happened, he would have said: “inadmissible, but secondary”.

How is this repression experienced by society?

At first, the mass-circulation press relayed the official version and added a lot of it by inventing destruction and shooting of Algerians. Then quickly she asks questions. Journalists realize that Papon’s record is totally implausible. The opposition is trying to set up a parliamentary commission of inquiry that the government manages to prevent. For its part, justice did nothing. What is impressive is that it all went completely unpunished. Then, four months later, at the Charonne metro station, the same Papon police killed eight French communist activists and that is what the left would choose as a symbol of repression. Charonne will completely cover the memory of October 17.

How will the memory of the event be perpetuated?

It will survive in those who lived it, obviously. Even if Algerians very rarely spontaneously tell their children what happened. It will emerge in the anti-racist movements of the 1980s, in particular around the march for equality and against racism of 1983.

What is the attitude of the French authorities today?

The only official speech since 1961 is that of François Hollande in 2012. He made a very meager press release where he did not say much. It’s a rusty nail in the sole of the Republic’s foot and the longer you wait, the more it gets infected. Since the 2000s, it is an event on which there have been many productions: comics, films, novels, history books. There is a gigantic gap between what we know and what the government wants to say.

The inauguration in 2001 of the plaque tribute to the victims of October 17 near the Saint-Michel bridge in Paris. – DURAND FLORENCE / SIPA

What impact on the police today?

October 17, 1961 is more topical today than ever because it is about police violence, systemic racism in the police, and impunity. All that has not completely disappeared. When the plaque was placed on the Saint-Michel bridge by Bertrand Delanoë, the police unions screamed at the attack on the honor of their profession. There is a refusal to see what happened.