Macron's 1961 Massacre remarks show France's colonial apathy

Macron's apathy on 1961 Paris massacre show France's continued anti-Algerianism
6 min read
25 Oct, 2021
60 years on since the massacre of hundreds of Algerians in Paris, pleas for truth and justice have yet to be answered by Macron and the broader French society, writes Malia Bouattia.
A woman whose loved one was killed during 1961 massacre of Algerian protesters in Paris looks out from the bridge where many of the demonstrators were killed, on 17 October 2021. [Getty]

"People of France, you saw it all, yes, you saw it all with your own eyes. You saw our blood flow, you saw the police beat the protestors, and throw them in the Seine."

Algerian writer and revolutionary Kateb Yacine's poem, 'The Wolf's Mouth,' which was written in the direct aftermath of the massacres of hundreds of Algerians in the heart of Paris, on 17 October 1961, sadly still resonates to this day. The plea he made for truth – and therefore also justice – has yet to be answered 60 years on.

This year, like every year, Algerians and anti-colonialists around the globe marked the date when French Police murdered hundreds of people in Paris, who were protesting against the continued colonisation of Algeria. In October 1961, the French state had imposed a curfew on all Algerians in the city, in response to the growing successes of the liberation struggle and France's inability to maintain control over its colonial subjects. Yet, around 30,000 people took to the streets, peacefully marching and chanting for their freedom.

They were met with some of the most violent police brutality in French history, under the direction of then-police chief, and former collaborator in the Nazi deportation of French Jews, Maurice Papon. There were 14,000 arrests, and between 200 and 300 demonstrators were killed.

"The river, often portrayed as a romantic tourist attraction, was said to have turned red from all the blood of the Algerians who were thrown into its waters"

From shotguns to crushed skulls, state forces were merciless on that fateful day. Some of the protestors were injured and thrown into the seine where they drowned to death. In the days that followed, over 100 dead bodies were washed up on the banks of the Seine. The river, often portrayed as a romantic tourist attraction, was said to have turned red from all the blood of the Algerians who were thrown into its waters. The youngest (known) person to be killed that day was 15-year-old Fatima Beda, whose body was discovered two weeks later.

As Yacine wrote:

"The reddened Seine, didn't stop in the days that followed, to vomit in the face of the people of the Commune, those martyred bodies, which reminded the Parisians of their own revolutions, of their own resistance."

The response that followed these tragic events has made this chapter in Algerian-French history all the more difficult to move on from. The French government scrambled to bury the entire massacre as though nothing had taken place. The French press were also complicit through their silence, with Libération, a so-called left newspaper, claiming that only two were killed, 7,500 arrested and others simply wounded. Strikingly, when eight French communists were killed a few months later, during a demonstration against the fascist Secret Army Organisation (OAS), thousands of people marched through the streets of Paris. Not a word was said about the hundreds of Algerians who had met the same fate.

Certainly, by 1961 the dehumanisation at the hands of the French state had already been a long and common experience for Algerians. However, it is the length of the state-led historical omission of the Paris massacre that has left such a strong scar.

Voices

It was until 1997, during the trial of Papon over his responsibility in the deportation of hundreds of Jews to concentration camps during WWII, that information about the Paris massacres was publicly shared. Despite his conviction for crimes against humanity in 1998, details about his role in the repression and killing of Algerians at home and abroad - including the systematic use of torture in his role as Prefect of Constantine - remained extremely limited.

It took another 14-years for French President François Hollande to simply recognise the 1961 "bloody repression" of Algerians. The absence of any real clarity regarding what happened on 17 October, let alone genuine apologies or reparations given to the families of those killed, continued however.

To date, despite Macron's stated commitment to healing old colonial wounds between France and Algeria, there have been no changes to this sorry state of affairs. The French president made a whole show of establishing a 'truth and reconciliation' process, by commissioning historian Benjamin Stora to lead on the work of addressing the historical tensions that continue to define political relations between the two countries. However, a notable refusal to apologise for the actions of the French state have tarnished much of the recommendations that came of this work.

 Furthermore, it is worth remembering that whilst Macron may have formerly committed to, for example, making archives related to France's colonisation of Algeria public, he simultaneously introduced policies that would prevent this from happening. French historians expressed their concerns over his government's so-called terrorism and intelligence law, which would prevent documents that concern security and military information from being shared at all. The move was criticised as an attempt to block the truth from coming out about the French state's actions during the Algerian liberation struggle.

The failure to apologise was also noted during last weekend's commemorations of the Paris massacres. Macron went to visit Bezons bridge on the Seine in order to mark the day, during which he said that the events which took place under the direction of Papon were an "unforgivable crime".

"The repression was brutal, violent, bloody," he also declared in an official statement.

Similar to his predecessor, the president made no gestures towards providing accountability, let alone committing the French state to paying reparations for the crimes carried out on that day. Even the recognition that the colonisation of Algeria - which was the context of the bloody repression in 1961 - was wrong, would have been a welcome acknowledgement.

The emptiness of Macron's gesture was also underscored by the fact that protestors who marked the anniversary were blocked by police from throwing their roses into the Seine from Saint-Michel bridge - an otherwise annual tradition. Scenes of French police forces preventing the masses who had joined a march organised by Algerian and anti-racist groups reinforced that the French colonial state is not just a thing of the past.

"The repression of Algerians and their descendants continues through the so-called counter-terrorism and anti-separatism policies"

The repression of Algerians and their descendants continues through the so-called counter-terrorism and anti-separatism policies. The very tactics used to terrorise Algerians in the 1950s and 1960s – from house raids to the shutting down of anti-racist organisations, including the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) and the Coordination Against Racism and Islamophobia – have been heavily normalised under Macron today.

Public outcry against these assaults on civil liberties in the republic is worryingly absent.

The question posed by Kateb Yacine at the end of his poem remains eerily adequate, decades on:

"People of France, you saw it all, yes, you saw it all with your own eyes, and now, are you going to speak? And now, are you going to remain silent?"

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

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Opinions expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.