Posted on August 27th, 2017
It was 1961 and tensions were running high in Paris. Over the previous four decades France had welcomed Algerian workers to replace Frenchmen killed in the First World War, a process repeated after WWII. By the time the Algerian War of Independence began in 1954, more than 200,000 Algerians had already arrived, with many settling in Marseille and the 18th Arrondissement of Paris. In 1961 the violence of the war spread to the French mainland where several police were murdered and a Strasbourg to Paris express train was blown up killing 28. As the situation became increasingly volatile many French decided these immigrants were no longer welcome.
Maurice Papon was the tough and uncompromising Police Prefect for Paris, who had served in Algeria and Morocco. Twenty years later it was revealed that Papon had worked for the Vichy authorities in Bordeaux as supervisor of the Service for Jewish Questions, where he was responsible for the round up of hundreds of Jews to be handed over to the Germans for deportation to concentration camps.
Under Prefect Papon’s rule detention centres were rapidly filled with Algerian immigrants and police brutality became routine. He created special squads of harkis, Algerians who supported French rule, with a fearsome reputation for torture.
In a further attempt to crush dissent Papon introduced a curfew that closed all Algerian bars at 7:30pm and banned Muslim Algerian workers from the streets after 8:30pm. It was fuel to the fire, so on 17th October 1961 thirty thousand mainly Algerian marchers took to the streets to protest and break the curfew. It was intended to be a peaceful protest, with many wearing their best clothes. They gathered at several locations across the city including the Place de l’Etoile, the Concorde and next to the National Assembly, shouting “Algeria for Algerians!”.
The police were waiting with nightsticks, shields and rifles ready for battle. Papon had promised them protection with no repercussions. One officer later recalled Papon saying: “You will be covered, I give you my word on that. Besides, when you advise headquarters that a North African is down, the officer in charge who will come to the crime scene will have everything necessary to make sure the North African has a weapon on him, because in the current state of affairs, there can be no mistakes.”
In the rain a paramilitary force of 8,400 officers attacked protesters across the city. Machine guns and revolvers were fired into the crowds. People were clubbed as they emerged from Metro stations, bodies littered the streets, others were stacked in front of the Rex cinema. One policeman described a passenger bus stopping so the driver and passengers could help officers hurl Algerians into the river. Survivors were packed into public buses, taxis and police wagons. Many of the buses had to be thoroughly cleaned to remove the blood of protesters.
In all 11,720 Algerians were held in detention centres where the vicious beatings continued and corpses were piled in storage rooms. At the Palais des Sports, the prisoners were moved out to make way for a Ray Charles concert. In the courtyard of the police prefecture protesters were beaten, strangled with ropes and brake cables, their bodies, living and dead, thrown into the river by the Pont Saint-Michel. In the next days police death squads terrorised immigrant neighbourhoods to continue the slaughter. For several weeks, unidentified corpses were discovered along the banks of the river. Two weeks later, a group of officers anonymously published details of what they had witnessed. “Torturers threw their victims by tens in the Seine … to keep them from being examined by the forensic scientists,” they wrote, “but not before having taken their watches and money.”
The official report listed two Algerians and one European protester dead. Estimates later put the number around two hundred.
No charges were ever brought against Papon or the police for their role in the killings. President Charles de Gaulle awarded Papon the Légion d’honneur and he later became France’s budget minister. He died in 2007, after serving three years in prison for ordering the deportation of Jews.
In 2012 historian Jean-Luc Einaudi told TV station France 24: “There was a convergence of interests to maintain a silence, a forgetfulness, a wilful ignorance about this issue.” On October 17, 1997, the first commemoration of the 1961 massacre was held at Pont Saint-Michel. Four years later, on the fortieth anniversary, Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë unveiled the plaque officially recognising the massacre.