Did you know that in 1961, French police massacred more than 100 Algerians as they demonstrated peacefully in the center of Paris?
If you didn’t, it’s not surprising. Even in France, the event has been obscured by decades of official silence. It doesn’t appear in history books and the exact death toll remains uncertain.
The facts, as we know them, are these: On October 5, 1961, following attacks on the Paris police by FLN separatists, a curfew was imposed on North Africans living in the city and its suburbs. When some 40,000 protesters poured into the streets on October 17, the police cracked down. Their chief, Maurice Papon (note: Papon was later convicted of crimes against humanity for his role in the Vichy government’s deportation of Jews to concentration camps during WWII) allegedly ordered his men to take brutal measures. At least 100 people were slaughtered; shot to death in the streets of central Paris, tortured and killed in the courtyard of the police prefecture, or pushed into the Seine to drown.
And then, for decades, no one spoke about their deaths. It was 51 years before the French government formally acknowledged the massacre. But in the aftermath of the November 2015 Paris attacks, many are looking back to 1961, the last time France imposed a state of emergency.
To get some context, I turned to Terrence Peterson, a historian (Ph.D., University of Wisconsin 2015) and expert on the French war in Algeria. Terry’s book project, Keeping Algeria French: Counterinsurgency, Development, and Colonial Utopianism, 1955-1962, explores and contextualizes French efforts to remake Algerians in the image of Frenchmen. He’s therefore the perfect person to talk to about this (and his office is conveniently right next door to mine at CISAC). Here is our conversation, edited for length and clarity:
KCF: First of all, why is this massacre relatively unknown?
TP: Perhaps the most important reason why the massacre remained so shrouded in mystery for so long was simply the French government’s refusal to talk about it. The Parisian press covered the events, and the National Liberation Front (FLN) which was fighting for Algerian independence certainly made efforts to publicize the violence. But French administrators categorically denied the massacre had taken place, and they kept archives related to the matter locked down. The number of Algerians killed is still uncertain for that very reason.
KCF: So how do we know about it at all, then?
TP: It wasn’t until a historian named Jean Luc Einaudi published the first really in-depth investigation of events in 1991 that the public really became aware of events. And even then, public awareness was highly politicized: debate really began in earnest in 1999, only after Maurice Papon sued Einaudi for libel. After that, 17 October became a potent symbol for state violence against Algerians, but because of that it has remained a really sensitive topic.
KCF: Was the massacre a one-off event, or is it indicative of a broader pattern of treatment of Algerians in France during this period?
TP: The 17 October massacre was unique within metropolitan France in the scale of violence: Police in Paris killed somewhere between 120 and 200 Algerians, and imprisoned another fourteen thousand in detention centers around the city in the days following.
KCF (interrupting): I’m sorry, did you just say the French government put thousands of Algerians in detention camps?
TP: Yes. The detention centers were set up around Paris to deal with the massive number of Algerians arrested in the aftermath of these events – though many operated beforehand to house Algerian militants arrested during the so-called ‘battle of Paris’ between the FLN and their rival, the MNA (Algerian National Movement). The two groups fought a turf war over who would take leadership of the revolution both in Paris and across Algeria. Eleven of the fourteen thousand Algerians arrested and housed in these detention centers were later deported back to North Africa.
KCF: Whoa. Okay.
TP: This wasn’t unprecedented: the French state had long used internment as a tool to control Algerian resistance against French rule. The Army also engaged in a form of mass internment during the war by marking huge swathes of territory as “forbidden zones” and forcibly relocating Algerian communities within those zones to “grouping camps” that often amounted to little more than tents surrounded by barbed wire.
And the 1961 massacre itself has to be placed within a broader context, not only of ongoing police repression within France during the war for Algerian independence (1954-1962), but of regular police violence against Algerian civilians in Algeria, which French authorities then considered constitutionally part and parcel of France.
KCF: Can you give us some examples?
TP: French police shot and killed more than a hundred unarmed demonstrators in Algerian cities on December 10-11, 1960, and again on July 5, 1961, for example. And this pattern of violence goes much further back, not just in the post-WWII era, but well into the 19thcentury. Even more bloody but perhaps less well know still than the events of 1961, for example, was the French administration’s repression of Algerian nationalist demonstrations in the cities of Sétif and Guelma May 1945, which resulted in an estimate 6,000-17,000 Algerian deaths. So there’s a pattern of French violence targeting Algerians that’s well established, even if its eruption within the borders of metropolitan France was new.
KCF: How was this received by the French public? Did they view violence against Algerians in France differently from violence in against Algerians in Algeria?
In broad terms, the French state employed violence much more heavily against Algerians in Algeria than in France, largely because the army held full police powers in the Algerian territory from the spring of 1956. The army systematically employed torture, murder, disappearances, internment camps, and other means in its efforts to root out and destroy the FLN’s clandestine networks. When these facts were revealed in the press in 1957, it provoked widespread condemnation and helped turn the tide of public support against the army and in favor of Algerian independence. Many French people did consider Algeria to be France, and while there was a sense of distance, many metropolitan families also had sons fighting across the Mediterranean. So there was a sense of intimacy that surrounded the events of the war, and the difference in violence had less to do with metropolitans’ lesser opinion of Algeria than the fact that the army had assumed extraordinary powers in North Africa.
KCF: How should the 1961 massacre inform they way we think about the French response to the Paris attacks?
TP: While several journalists have tried to make the connection between the Algerian War and attacks in Paris last November, I think we have to be careful. On one hand, yes: looking at the 17 October 1961 massacre shows us that the French state has a long history of employing violent or authoritarian measures against populations it judges ‘dangerous’ – Muslims and North Africans in particular. But on the other hand, like other historians, I would really caution against drawing too many parallels. In 1961, France was in the midst of a very complex civil war. The French state under Charles de Gaulle was struggling to reassert its authority, not only over Algerians, but over its own army and against a terrorist organization known as the OAS made up of colonial settlers and former army officers who opposed de Gaulle’s policy shift toward supporting Algerian Independence. This is a very different situation from the threat of home-grown terrorists that France is concerned with today.