Algeria’s Ghosts: France Acknowledges a 1961 Police Massacre

French President François Hollande reverses 51 years of official denial about the violent deaths of perhaps 200 people killed during a 1961 demonstration against the Algerian war

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People watch clothes left on the ground after a demonstration by Algerian protesters against the curfew for French Muslims in Paris on Oct. 17, 1961

Five decades after a peaceful antiwar demonstration in Paris ended in the deaths of Algerian participants, French President François Hollande officially paid “homage to the victims” of what he termed “a bloody repression” by police. That violence marked one of the most notorious — and long-denied — actions by French security forces in the nation’s vicious fight to prevent Algerian independence.

Hollande’s announcement Wednesday evening — exactly 51 years after the infamous Oct. 17, 1961 massacre — was cheered by observers who’ve long called on France to recognize what they maintain was premeditated police brutality that led to as many as 200 deaths. But detractors countered that Hollande has saddled the republic with undeserved guilt for the violence — and the moral and civil responsibilities that go with it.

Hollande’s terse statement solemnly noted, “On Oct. 17, 1961, Algerians who were protesting for independence were killed in a bloody repression.” By most accounts, that violence exploded after police were ordered to break up the march on grounds that it violated a curfew that had been imposed to deter pro-independence attacks exported from tumultuous Algeria — then a colonized department of France — to the French mainland.

According to many historians, eyewitnesses and participants, marchers were set upon by baton-wielding police, who allegedly bludgeoned fleeing and cornered demonstrators. People who saw the clash maintain police acted with such efficiency — and brutality — that their offensive must have been planned beforehand. Those accusers say bodies of victims were thrown off bridges into the Seine by security forces — some while still alive but unconscious. Those accounts have invariably been dismissed by officials as hysterical and false. Police files on the matter have been kept sealed, and independent research and books on the clash were long banned by officials. That willful obscurity is one reason why the death toll has ranged from scores to hundreds (or just two, according to French media reports the following day).

For that reason — and even without mentioning the role of police forces in the melee — Hollande’s revision of the official line was significant in appearing to accept accusations dogging the clash. “The republic recognizes these facts with lucidity,” Hollande’s communiqué read. “Fifty-one years after this tragedy, I pay homage to the memories of its victims.”

(PHOTOS: 50 Years of Algerian Independence: Scenes from a 20th Century War)

Hollande’s visit to Algeria in December clearly figures in the timing of his statement. Still, historians, leftist politicians and many citizens of Algerian extraction applauded the move as overdue recognition of the massacre. Not everyone agreed. Christian Jacob, parliamentary leader of the conservative Union for a Popular Movement party, did not deny that a deadly clash occurred. He nevertheless attacked Hollande’s initiative as besmirching all of France. “While denying the events of Oct. 17, 1961 and forgetting the victims is out of the question, it is unacceptable to blame the state police, and with them the whole republic,” a statement issued on Wednesday by Jacob read. “François Hollande should unite people, and his attempt to politicize the memory of a difficult period in our history is dangerous for national cohesion.”

Perhaps, but neither Jacob nor his conservative peers aired such complaints in 1995, when conservative French President Jacques Chirac similarly upended an even more sensitive official position. Chirac did so on the anniversary of the 1942 roundup and deportation of nearly 13,000 Jews in Paris, when he acknowledged the republic’s responsibility in what had officially been blamed on the German invader. In doing so, Chirac ended France’s official postwar stance that all anti-Semitic acts and war crimes during World War II were exclusively the acts of Nazi occupiers and a small number of collaborating French traitors. “Yes, the criminal madness of the occupier was assisted by French people, by the French state,” Chirac said during the ceremony. “July 16, 1942, 450 police officers and gendarmes, under orders of their chiefs, responded to Nazi demands … France, on that day, inflicted the irreparable.”

So if the French right could live with Chirac’s WW II revision, why does it have trouble with Hollande’s bow to the victims of the 1961 massacre? First off, the France of 1961 wasn’t dominated by Nazis, but instead was presided over by Resistance hero Charles de Gaulle — who’d ultimately be responsible for any outrage by security forces carried out on his watch. Second, his mythical place in French history notwithstanding, de Gaulle can’t afford too many more bruises to his honor. Not only do many rightists still hold de Gaulle responsible for losing Algeria to independence forces, but many observers also remain indignant over his willingness to rehabilitate influential French Nazi collaborators in the interests of postwar unity. One of those figures played a direct role in the 1961 violence.

The prefect of police for Paris at that time was Maurice Papon, who was appointed by de Gaulle despite Papon’s record as an official in the collaborationist Vichy regime. As head of the Bordeaux area during the war, Papon ordered the arrest and deportation of thousands of Jews — actions that resulted in his 1998 conviction and 10 years in prison for complicity in crimes against humanity. However, from 1945 to the late 1970s, Papon’s organizational skills — and ruthlessness in dealing with troubles arising from North African insurgencies — led to his appointment to various high-ranking civil service and security posts, including oversight of the police on the fateful evening of Oct. 17, 1961. In 1978, Papon was even named to national government. He died in 2007. Papon is the crooked line that courses through de Gaulle’s postwar reputation to Chirac’s act of contrition to Hollande’s statement, a semiotic equation that is the closest the republic will probably come to an apology.