The night of October 17, 1961, was one of the last representations of hatred of French colonial hegemony. It represents this authoritarian trade of the French Government of those who were once called the French Muslims of Algeria.
In 1961, Algeria was a French territory colonized in 1830 and divided into departments. Algeria’s war of independence has been raging since 1952, pitting nationalist groups such as the National Liberation Front against the French army and some far-right extremist groups like the OAS, a terrorist organization campaigning for French Algeria. This conflict is of diplomatic scope because it led to the fall of the 4th Republic in France and the return of Charles de Gaulle to power.
At the end of August 1961, several attacks were perpetrated against the police forces in the French capital; the FLN claims them in response to the police blunders that cost the lives of several dozen Algerians in September and October. Later, it will call for a general strike of Algerian markets and peaceful demonstrations, including the one in October. On the 17, an appeal is launched to Algerian men, women and children, asking them to boycott the curfew and march peacefully on Paris. It is formally requested that no weapons or objects that can be considered as such be brought during the march. It is in a climate of mutual violence exacerbated by the daily abuse of North Africans that this peaceful demonstration will take place.
The Paris police prefecture belatedly discovered the FLN’s call for a boycott, but it quickly organized its repression. On the morning of October 17, the police requisitioned Le Parc des Expositions of Paris, suggesting that maintaining peace and order was not the priority of the prefect of police Maurice Papon. For the one who had ordered the police to return 10 punches for each given after the attacks against them, this demonstration is an opportunity to repress with great firmness and to organize a gigantic roundup. October 17, 1961, will hold the record for the number of arrests at the time, even before the boycott began. Despite all that day when the discriminatory regulations already in place became radicalized, it would become the end of the series of previous protests and blunders. It was clear that the fate of Algerians was very different from the rest of the metropolitan population.
The fear of the Government about this demonstration was that it would appeal to the patriotic protests of Algeria in December 1960 during the visit of General de Gaulle. The number of victims, probably reduced, was due to the unwillingness of the State to round up poorly organized demonstrators who expressed their hatred violently (ransacking of symbolic places, attacks against Europeans…) but rather to send paratroopers firing machine guns into the virulent and dispersed crowds.
Altough a heavy human toll marked these days, who appeared as an armed revolution, they were decisive from a political point of view for the independence that would happen two years later. On the other hand, the demonstrations of October 17 carried only the claim to exist and appear in a country that needed this immigration.
The repression was of unprecedented violence. The first violence appeared around 6 p.m. at the Opera district, where the participants arrived by metro. The demonstrators fell by dozens under the blow of bullets and batons; if they were not suffocated, they were thrown alive or dead into the Seine. The bridge of Neuilly, the Place de l’Étoile and the suburban towns where there were uprisings were fed by bullets, but the Quartier Latin was particularly affected by shots that there was an investigation opened the next day. The 1650 police officers deployed in the capital reflected the State’s violence. This figure does not include the various auxiliary police groups, special district teams, guards, existing curfew enforcement teams and CRS barracks (riot police). During the evening and methods of repression, violence became collectivized. According to testimonies, firefighters of RATP agents and simple passers-by participated in the massacre. Throughout Paris, a manhunt along racial lines was organized, and although some metropolitans helped Algerians hide, that night turned into a pogrom for some.
Although this night had an international echo, it was on the front page of the New York Times on October 18, 19, 20 and 22. Despite censorship, metropolitan newspapers criticized this bloody repression days later, the night of October 17, 1961, passed over in silence for a few decades. After the events, Maurice Papon said in a statement that the police had dispersed groups demonstrating under the constraint of the FLN and that shots had been fired at the police who had responded in action. They deplored two deaths on the police side, and a large part of the demonstrators would be sent back to Algeria. This official version of events is one of the only sources for the French press that begins to doubt the report of the Prime Minister and the Prefect of Police. Newspapers such as L’Humanité, Libération and even Le Figaro refute these official versions. This lack of information pushes the French press to come to the slums of the Paris suburbs, and they will see signs of repression similar to December 1960. Despite the various publications, those right- wing newspapers spitting out the information of Papon’s communiqué will create the version to which most French people will adhere. Moreover, on February 8 1962, a peaceful demonstration by Algerians was held against the OAS, an extreme right-wing terrorist organization campaigning for French Algeria. There will be eight dead on the protest side. The Charonne metro station affair will receive more outstanding media and political coverage and will finish obscuring the events of October.
Several texts, collections and books denounced this colonial massacre during the next three decades. Still, it was only in 1991, with the publication of La Bataille de Paris, Jean-Luc Einaudi gave visibility to this case. 5 years later, the trial of Maurice Papon was held, and the alleged facts mainly concerned his collaboration with the Vichy government during the WWII, but the author is invited to testify about the events of October 1961. He wrote for Le Monde “In October 1961, there was a massacre in Paris perpetrated by police acting under the orders of Maurice Papon”. He was sued for defamation by the principal concerned, but the justice dropped the charges in 1999. The testimony of the author and other witnesses during the trial will push the French judge to open the national archives to 3 historians to examine them.
The report of the analysis stated 48 dead. Subsequently, the massacre designation will be dismissed given the “small amount” of victims. Although the archive analysis will never deliver the exact number of deaths on October 17, the next day, the prefecture will announce only three deaths; today, some estimate between 100 and 200 drowned in the Seine.
Despite a commemorative plaque inaugurated on October 17 2001, in tribute to the victims, it was not until October 17 2012, that a President commemorated the facts. François Hollande will say, “On October 17, 1961, Algerians who were demonstrating for the right to independence were killed in a bloody repression. The Republic lucidly acknowledges these facts. Fifty-one years after this tragedy, I pay tribute to the memory of the victims.”
For this article, I used Elie Kagan’s pictures. He was a french photographer and journalist. He fought to highlight this affair.