The protesters killed on 17 October 1961 were calling for Algerian independence. Could you describe the political situation in France leading up to the massacre?
The Algerians were fighting for independence, led by the National Liberation Front (FLN). The war in Algeria had lasted seven years and had serious repercussions within France itself.
France was then home to around 350,000 Algerians—130,000 of whom lived in or near Paris. The FLN had a large French section.
Talks between France and the provisional FLN government were suspended in July 1961. Both sides expected that these talks would eventually resume, and sought to consolidate their positions.
One faction of the French government had been lobbying for a more repressive strategy. In August it was given a free hand.
In France itself raids became much more frequent—particularly from the Auxiliary Police Force (FPA), which was formed of Algerians with a score to settle with the FLN. They tortured people in basements and empty hotels.
The FPA was set up by Paris police chief Maurice Papon. He had previously been in charge of French military and civil forces in the east of Algeria. He transferred the methods used in Algeria to the Paris region.
Dead bodies, apparently of Algerians, started appearing from September onwards—in the River Seine, in the canals, in the woods. We know they were victims of revenge attacks by police because others had escaped and lived to bear witness.
The FLN responded to this repression. It gave its fighters a green light to attack police officers identified as having committed the abuses. Eleven police officers were killed at the beginning of October.
On 5 October the police, with government approval, declared a curfew on the so called “French Muslims of Algeria”. In practice this meant discrimination based on physical appearance.
Police practices in that period became marked by virulent race hatred. The rot soon spread—harassment, theft and violence became commonplace. They would raid workers on payday and steal their money.
There was also an internment camp set up in the woods of the Parisian suburb Vincennes from 1959 onwards. Algerians arrested in raids were taken there and interned for days at a time, with consequences for their jobs and housing.
How did the FLN come to call for a mass demonstration?
The demonstration of October 1961 followed on from mass demonstrations in Algeria itself.
In December 1960, while French president Charles De Gaulle was in Algeria, a mass demonstration in Algiers proved to him that the majority of the population was won to the idea of independence and supported the FLN politically.
It was then that De Gaulle understood that politically the war was lost, even if the FLN had been militarily defeated at the Battle of Algiers. In July 1961 there were demonstrations in a number of cities in Algeria. These were repressed when the army opened fire.
The starting point for the 17 October demonstration was the curfew imposed on 5 October.
This was a real obstacle to the FLN’s activity, which mainly consisted of collected funds for the provisional government of Algeria. The curfew made it harder for their activists to get around and prevented the organisation from running smoothly.
The idea was to protest massively against the curfew and to defy it. The demonstrations were organised in secret, particularly through word of mouth. Many people only found out at the last minute.
What was the plan behind the 17 October demonstrations? And what exactly happened on that day?
The police knew about the demonstrations the day before. And they knew the demonstrations were going to be peaceful.
The FLN leadership had sent out an order that the demonstrations must be peaceful. Protesters were not to confront the police, even in response to provocation or repression. No protester was to carry anything that might be considered a weapon—not even a penknife.
It was a Tuesday, and it rained. Police numbers had been swelled by reinforcements from other forces. They carried out raids in Paris and its suburbs.
The raids intensified as the day went on, to the point where the police no longer had enough vehicles. They had to requisition public transport buses to transport Algerians to internment centres.
Some of the demonstrations still took place despite the raids. They tried to converge on the great squares of Paris. Several thousand people set off from the slums of Nanterre. When they reached the Neuilly bridge, cordons of police opened fire.
Demonstrators were killed. Others were thrown into the Seine. These scenes were to be repeated throughout the night on a whole series of bridges.
Another large demonstration left Place de la République and proceeded without the slightest incident along the Grand Boulevards up to Place de l’Opéra.
There, faced with police, the procession attempted to turn back.
They got as far as the Rex cinema when the police opened fire. Here too there were deaths.
Other demonstrations took place in the Latin Quarter and on the Champs Elysées—but briefly, as the repression came down very quickly.
A hunt was on, across Paris and its suburbs. Large numbers of people were arrested, wounded and driven to various internment centres. Police station courtyards were full. People trapped there suffered extreme violence at the hands of the police. These crimes continued throughout the night and in the days that followed.
Shortly after midnight on 17 October, a group of uniformed police officers approached Claude Bourdet, editor of the France Observateur newspaper. They were in a state of shock and told him they had just taken part in a massacre of around 50 Algerians.
What were the reactions in France to the 17 October massacre, both at the time and immediately afterwards?
During the night the police issued a statement saying they had opened fire in response to being shot at. They talked of two deaths. These were all lies.
As time went on a number of corpses were recovered from the Seine and the canals. There had to be an explanation. So they claimed they were victims of the FLN. This was a concerted campaign of lies from the state.
Some French people witnessed events on the day itself and reacted with solidarity. Some sheltered and hid Algerians to try and spare them from the repression. But these were a minority, and others denounced Algerians in hiding to the police.
Student protests broke out in the Latin Quarter in the following days. Some teachers and intellectuals also spoke out, as did the trade unions. But they left it at that. There was no initiative on the scale needed to respond to what had just happened.
A number of journalists did try to find out the truth. Some of them had witnessed terrible things. Newspapers were censored, as was a film, Octobre à Paris, by Jacques Pajinel, and a book, Ratonnades à Paris, by Paulette Péju.
Are these massacres remembered today? What sort of recognition do they have?
The story has been handed down in certain limited circles—people who supported the Algerian struggle, some sections of the far left, those who were willing to break with the French Communist Party.
I count myself in this tradition. My book, La Bataille de Paris, came out in 1991 and broadly established the facts.
In 1997 Papon’s past under the Nazi occupation caught up with him. Families of Jewish victims asked me to testify about his career in court. I talked about the events of 17 October 1961 and his actions. This was the first time that these events were openly discussed.
Papon took legal action against me in 1999—and lost. As a result the court was obliged to recognise that a massacre had taken place.
In 2001 a commemorative plaque was inaugurated on the Pont St Michel, and from then on a movement has grown to demand recognition of these crimes. But there’s a great deal of resistance to this. The prefecture of police has done everything possible to deny the crime.
When Lionel Jospin was prime minister, he issued a declaration recognising that there had been ten or so victims. This was the first time there was any official recognition, and for now it has gone no further.
In recent years they’ve no longer been able to deny the existence of the victims. So they’ve tried to present the FLN as a terrorist organisation and the police as victims of FLN aggression.
What was the relationship between the Algerian workers and the organised French left?
The FLN had broken with what was called the French left in March 1956.
The Socialist Party government—equivalent to Labour in Britain—called on Parliament to grant special powers for repression in Algeria. Algerian organisations denounced these measures, but the French Communist Party (PCF) called on its MPs to vote for them—hoping for a unity deal with the Socialists.
The special powers opened up the worst period of the war in Algeria. This was the imposition of state terrorism and led to the generalisation of torture and death sentences. And there was hardly any opposition because the war was being led by a left wing government.
After the vote, the FLN called on Algerians to leave the PCF-led CGT union, in which they had previously been very numerous, especially in the large factories. These workers set up their own organisation, the General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTA).
With some exceptions, there were few links between the two worlds of French workers and Algerian workers. It was incredibly rare for French workers to venture into the slums where thousands of Algerians lived.
The 1961 massacre took place in the aftermath of this situation. The imposition of a curfew upon Algerian workers could have led to a united response from all the workers’ organisations in the country. Instead the Algerians marched alone.
We have to understand the demonstrations, the repression, and the lack of the kind of reaction that would have been necessary in the context of this division.
But given the extent of the repression, especially from the Secret Army Organisation (OAS), a paramilitary far right organisation opposed to Algerian independence, the French organisations did end up calling demonstrations.
In February 1962 nine people were killed when one of these demonstrations was banned and broken up at the Charonne metro station. But this time it was French people who were killed. Eight of them were members of both the PCF and the CGT.
This time there was a massive response, with hundreds of thousands of demonstrators. Charonne was remembered, but the 17 October mostly ignored. Only one of the speakers at the memorial for the victims of Charonne even mentioned the 17 October.
Is it fair to say that this division among workers weakened the position of both French and Algerian workers?
Of course, and it was in these years that the currents emerged which were to play an important role in 1968.
The cadre of the student movement often came out of solidarity work for the FLN at the end of the war in Algeria. They opposed the politics of the PCF, which forbade support for the FLN and condemned deserters from the army. This gave birth to an opposition movement to the left of the PCF.
In the longer term, the short-sightedness of PCF leaders with regard to Algeria was one of the factors that led to the party’s decline. Faced with a decisive moment in history, they failed to play anything like their supposed historical role.
The PCF also bears considerable responsibility for the return of François Mitterand. They helped bury in silence his criminal role during the war in Algeria in exchange for electoral alliances. This was a miserable calculation and a complete failure.
For many years, the left was silent on the war in Algeria. In my opinion, this is one of the reasons that the far right has been able to prosper. The far right in France really put down roots through the war in Algeria.
What kind of links can be traced between the events of 17 October 1961 and the 2005 youth uprising in France’s suburbs?
The decision to declare a curfew in 2005 was like a reflex straight from the Algerian war. The measure was totally out of proportion to the revolts that had taken place. It was based on a law passed during the war years.
On the repression had nothing like the same character. But since there has been no recognition, at least until very recently, of these crimes and of the responsibility of French police for rounding up Jews during the Nazi occupation, it’s not surprising that we regularly find police mentalities and practices marked by racism.
The refusal to recognise victims boils down to a message that one person’s life doesn’t have the same value as another’s. And 17 October 1961 shows that the life of an Algerian was worth very little.
This sign of contempt and injustice is still felt in diffuse ways by new generations of young people—and it contributes to their sense of revolt.