Lessons from the Paris massacre, 1961

Lessons from the Paris massacre, 1961
5 min read
27 Oct, 2017
Comment: France may be keen to forget its brutal suppression of Algerian nationalism, but this dark chapter in history offers crucial insight into France's treatment of minorities, writes Malia Bouattia.
French Muslims continue to face discrimination [Getty]
At the height of the war of Algerian independence, 56 years ago, the French state brutally massacred hundreds of Algerians in the streets of Paris.

On the night of October 17, 1961, some 30,000 Muslims - among them children - marched on the streets of Paris against the curfew enforced upon them by the French government.

The protest was called by the Paris chapter of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN). An otherwise peaceful protest at the height of the Algerian struggle for independence ended with 300 Muslims drowned, beaten or suffocated to death by French police.

More than 12,000 protesters were arrested and stuffed into buses, then taken to detention centres including the infamous Vélodrome d’Hiver where Jews were previously held before being sent to concentration camps.

Some of the Muslims were killed, others beaten and starved for days on end. All of this took place under the direction of Maurice Papon, chief of the Paris police, who in 1998 was found guilty of crimes against humanity for having deported more than 1,500 Jews from Bordeaux during the Second World War.

What has made this chapter of French history even darker is the fact that it took more than 50 years for the state to apologise for the events - and even then, to say only a handful of lives were claimed. The likes of Papon were never convicted of the crimes they had organised and commanded.

Remembering these horrific acts of police brutality is not only important because of the injustice that continues for the families of those brutally killed, but also because it is important in our analysis of France today and its treatment of minority communities.
The French state refuses to gather information based on race, arguing it would go against the republic's values - and, ironically, reinforce discrimination

It is nothing new that France - like other former colonial empires - has always had a turbulent relationship with the diaspora of its ex-colonies. From its pro-imperialist curricula in schools, its attempts to omit historical events such as the Algerian revolution and subsequent independence, to the systematic oppression of people of colour across French society today.

It is especially hard to quantify the spread of these practices today, or their consequences, because the French state refuses to gather information based on race, arguing it would go against the republic's values - and, ironically, reinforce discrimination. In reality, the absence of numbers allows the French state to claim that there isn't a structural problem to be recognised, faced and dealt with.

It equates absence of proof to absence of crime - an approach that racialised minorities in France regularly contest in the streets, the media and in their artistic endeavours.

The current climate of Islamophobia in France resembles levels of toxicity that led to the fateful night in 1961. Following the recent "terror attacks", the community has been witness to thousands of home raids, the ransacking and even closure of mosques - and hundreds placed under house arrest.

Police have been given the green light to racially profile Muslims wherever they find them, even kneeling in prayer. Unsurprisingly, this has emboldened far-right groups and legitimised the National Front as a leading political party in the most recent French presidential election. This is a party that was founded by Jean-Marie le Pen, who served as a lieutenant in the French army and was complicit in the torture of Algerians during the revolution.

French authorities brutally suppressed Algerian nationalism both in Algeria and France [Keystone]

Civil liberties activist and editor of le Muslim Post, Yasser Louati, shared his thoughts on the commemoration of these horrors: "That massacre happened in the midst of the 30 glorious years during which France experienced unprecedented economic growth and full employment. That French institutions managed to obliterate the event from history books and collective memory and that to this day - people like President Emmanuel Macron won't even mention it - says a lot about the value of Muslim lives in this country."

While former French President François Hollande may have been the first leader to recognise the events half a century later, he failed to address the continued violence endured by racialised communities in the present day.

Rampant harassment by police in the streets - just try walking through any major city in France without witnessing a single stop and search - and deaths in custody have become a normalised practice in the aftermath of brutal colonial practices used since the 1800s.

Unsurprising then that the newly elected leadership has followed suit.

There is an urgency in remembering and retelling the story that the streets of one of the most beautiful cities in the world were paved with the blood of Algerians

It is clear that the largest Muslim population in Europe cannot be dependent on the state to provide any historical closure or justice to the communities. Louati has urged them to, "ruthlessly take back the narrative, write their own history and teach it to their own adults and kids and to the rest of society".

"October 17th should remind us that national security always comes with racism, for national security is meant to give a sense of security to the majority at tremendous cost for the minority."

The reality can feel incredibly hopeless, but there is an urgency in remembering and retelling the story that the streets of one of the most beautiful cities in the world were paved with the blood of Algerians, and the romantic river Seine was filled with their floating bodies.

However haunting those images may be, they reinforce the need to continue organising on transnational levels, against racism and Islamophobia.

In the words of Ben M'Hidi in the Battle of Algiers - a film banned in France for many years - "It is hard to start a revolution. Even harder to continue it. And it is hardest of all to win it. But, its only afterwards - when we have won - that the true difficulties begin."

Algerians fought and won their independence in 1962, with more than 1.5 million martyrs to this freedom, but the essence and mission of that struggle continues to this day.

Malia Bouattia is an activist, the 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

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.