French President François Hollande has ended more than 50 years of official silence over the massacre by Paris police of an estimated several hundred Algerians demonstrating for their country’s independence from France.
“On October 17th 1961, Algerians demonstrating for the right to independence were killed during a bloody repression,” read a statement by Hollande issued on Wednesday, on the 51st anniversary of the massacre. “France recognizes these events with lucidity. Fifty one years after this tragedy, I pay homage to the memory of the victims.”
It was the first public recognition by a French president of the killings which began after Paris police chief Maurice Papon – later convicted in 1998 for his role in the WWII deportation of Jews from German-occupied France - ordered a crackdown on the demonstration (see Mediapart's article on the events here).
The peaceful demonstration through the French capital, protesting against a curfew imposed on the Algerian community in Paris, was organised just months before Algeria would finally achieve independence from France, after a bloody war that began in 1954.
The hate and tensions created by the war were then at a flashpoint, and the ease with which the savagery of the police actions that evening has been overlooked almost beggars belief.
The official toll has until now remained at two demonstrators dead from gunshot wounds and several dozen injured among both demonstrators and police. The reality, established by numerous witness accounts, was very different; hundreds died, drowned after they were thrown into the river Seine, others beaten senseless under police batons.
The police operation on Papon's orders was redolent of the anti-Semitic methods used by the WWII collaborationist Vichy regime he previously served as prefect. Of those demonstrators detained by police, some were released, some were expelled to camps in Algeria, others remained missing.
Historian Jean-Luc Einaudi has estimated the events of October 17th 1961 left about 300 Algerians dead. When the ceasefire agreement was finally signed in March 1962, there were 62 cases pending of Algerians missing since that night. But the agreement provided for an amnesty and all the cases were closed.
Hollande had pledged, shortly after he won last autumn’s primaries to become the Socialist Party’s presidential candidate, that if elected he would make the move to recognise the tragedy, and he was one of the signatories of an online petition calling for an official recognition of the massacre published last year by Mediapart in association with Au Nom de la Mémoire (‘In the Name of Memory’), an association created by relatives of the participants of the demonstration. The move comes ahead of a state visit Hollande is due to make to Algeria in December.
But the timing of his announcement, however obvious, was officially kept secret until the very last minute. It even caught the Socialist Party acting First Secretary, Harlem Désir, by surprise, after he had earlier in the day issued a communiqué calling for the events of October 1961 to be recognised. “Nobody gives a damn,” lamented historian Benjamin Stora, a university professor and an internationally prominent researcher and writer on Algerian history, speaking on Wednesday before Hollande’s statement was announced. “That shows the gap between what is France today and the worlds of politics and culture, media included.”
During the day, an organization campaigning for the recognition of the massacre, the Collectif pour la reconnaissance du 17 octobre 61 had even sent a delegation to the presidential offices of the Elysée Palace, where they were turned away and told to address themselves to the nearby interior ministry.
“It is a first step, but a very important first step,” commented documentary maker Mehdi Lalloui, a leading campaigner for official recognition of the events and president of the association Au Nom de la Mémoire. He was speaking just before attending the yearly commemoration of the events held by campaigners at the Saint-Michel bridge, in the Latin Quarter, scene of the October 17th 1961 demonstration.“This statement by the [French] President will allow us to open a new page about the [independence] war in Algeria and [also] a path towards a true reconciliation, something that was impossible with the omissions and silence," he added. “For us, it is a victory.”