What happened on October 17, 1961 in Paris?

Entangled in a fragile and conflictual diplomatic relationship, France and Algeria commemorate, Saturday 16 and Sunday 17 October, a sad anniversary. Sixty years ago, on October 17, 1961, at least 120 Algerians were killed by police during a demonstration in Paris. At the call of the French Federation of the National Liberation Front (FLN), at least 20,000 Algerians marched to peacefully defend a “Algerian Algeria” and denounce a curfew imposed on these only “French Muslims of Algeria”.

In the heart of his policy of memorial reconciliation around the Algerian war, the French President, Emmanuel Macron, pledged to celebrate the three major commemorations around the conflict: the tribute to the harkis (Algerian auxiliaries who fought for the ‘French army) ; the sixtieth anniversary of the October 17, 1961 massacre; and the Evian accords, which sealed the country’s independence on March 18.

To try to better understand the stakes of this commemoration, The world explains to you what happened on October 17, 1961 and what it entailed.

As the Algerian War (1954-1962) draws to a close, the tension between the Parisian police, then led by Maurice Papon – also involved in the raid of 1,600 Jews in Bordeaux between 1942 and 1944 – and the FLN s ” increases, until a curfew is in place, for “French Muslims of Algeria” uniquely. To boycott this discriminatory rule, the French Federation of the FLN organized a large demonstration on October 17, 1961, calling on men, women and children to march through the capital. The mobilization is wanted peaceful, any weapon being strictly prohibited.

At the end of the afternoon, at least 20,000 Algerians – and up to 40,000 according to internal estimates of the FLN – thus take to the streets. But the demonstration was quickly and harshly repressed by the Parisian police, scalded by the dissemination of false information reporting several deaths and injuries among the police forces. Many demonstrators are killed: beaten up, in the street or in the internment centers to which they were taken, thrown into the Seine or shot dead.

During that bloody night, at least 12,000 Algerians were arrested, and at least 120 were killed – estimates by some historians even putting the toll at over 200 dead.

  • In what context did this massacre take place?

While the war rages in Algeria, tensions are also high in France in October 1961, where the Parisian police and members of the FLN are engaged in a violent battle. Abuses are regularly perpetrated by the police on Algerian detainees.

In an escalation of violence, the actions of the FLN are made more and more bloody as the French repression against the Algerians hardens. In September 1961, five French policemen were notably killed during attacks by the FLN.

“If the death of an agent on duty is normally the subject of institutional care, at the time the prefect Maurice Papon chose to suspend the solemn funeral, because there can not be every week and he fears the reactions of his agents. One can imagine the spirit of vengeance generated by this context ”, underlines the historian Emmanuel Blanchard in our columns.

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  • What follow-up have these events had?

The Paris prefecture – covered by the Gaullian authorities – quickly set about covering up what turned out to be “ the most violent state repression that a street demonstration in Western Europe has ever caused in contemporary history ”, according to British historians Jim House and Neil MacMaster. The next day, October 18, 1961, the prefecture established, in a press release, a toll of three deaths during – according to it – clashes between Algerian demonstrators. During this period, the press was then largely censored by the authorities, and the official discourse was relayed by popular press titles.

At the same time, the police and the judiciary are carrying out a loose investigation, focusing, according to Emmanuel Blanchard, on certain parts of the story, such as the settling of scores that had opposed two Algerian independence groups at the end of the 1950s, and obscuring many others, such as police violence. Also, the resumption of negotiations between Paris and the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (GPRA) for its independence largely contributed to installing an omerta around the events of October 17, 1961, the two parties considering that this silence pursued a common interest. .

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Languages ​​began to loosen in the 1980s under the impetus of the descendants of Algerians who remained in France and who witnessed the massacre. But the real advance towards the knowledge and memory of this event did not come until 1991, when the historian Jean-Luc Einaudi published The Battle of Paris, October 17, 1961 published by Le Seuil. His book then lifts the veil on one of the darkest episodes in Franco-Algerian history, calling into question the official version of the State and the human toll of this event – announced to three dead. Mr. Einaudi raises it to more than 200.

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Ten years after this publication, the socialist mayor of Paris Bertrand Delanoë inaugurated, in 2001, a plaque “In memory of the many Algerians killed during the bloody repression of the peaceful demonstration of October 17, 1961”. No minister or member of the state is associated with the commemoration. It was not until 2012 that a government took a position, in the person of Socialist President François Hollande. This last « reconn[aît] lucidly “, and in the name of the Republic, the “Bloody repression” who took the life “Algerians who demonstrated for the right to independence”. On the other hand, the form of the presidential gesture – a press release rather than a speech during a ceremony – limited the symbolic power of this recognition by the French state.

  • What is the stake of this anniversary against a backdrop of tensions between Paris and Algiers?

Emmanuel Macron is therefore particularly expected this October 17. Especially since this sixtieth anniversary comes in a very tense context between France and Algeria after Mr. Macron mentioned, on September 30 during a meeting transcribed by The world, a “Politico-military system” Algerian ” tiredness “, based on “Hatred of France” and who maintains a “Memorial rent” who “Does not rely on truths”. These remarks greatly displeased the other side of the Mediterranean, causing a real diplomatic incident.

Tensions were, however, already high between the two countries, spanning several fronts, including: the issue of migration; disappointments concerning economic and commercial contracts; regional security; or this memorial reconciliation that the French president wanted to initiate, recalled Frédéric Bobin, journalist specializing in North Africa in World.

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Mr. Macron acknowledged “In the name of France” and some ” French Republic ” the assassination in Algiers in 1957 of independence activists Maurice Audin and Ali Boumendjel. He also admitted, on September 20, the “Tragedy” concerning the harkis, for which he asked « pardon ». It could show, on October 17, a boldness made even more imperative by the recent dissonances towards the Algerian power and the Algerian population. It is still unknown, however, what the French president could say, advancing on a ridge line between the “Lucid look at the wounds of our past”, which he calls for in the mission letter entrusted to the historian Benjamin Stora, and the refusal of too much French repentance.