Remembrance in Paris
ANNIVERSARIES are not always occasions to honour with pride, some of them are shameful. It was fifty years ago, on October 17, 1961, that hundreds of people were killed by the police, not in some dark corner of Africa or under a brutal Middle Eastern dictatorship, but in Paris, the 'city of light', under the French Fifth Republic.
France's day of shame came because, like other colonial powers, it had not extended its famed liberte, egalite et fraternite to all those it ruled. In Algeria people were fighting for freedom in their own way, attempting to wrest their country from the Army and the settlers. The war spilled over into mainland France. In August 1958 four policemen were killed in Paris, and the Prefect of Police ordered massive raids on Algerians living in the area, during which 5,000 of them were detained, many of them being held in the Vel' d'Hiv stadium.
That was where the police had rounded up Jews for deportation during the Occupation. But if anyone started talking about that, Prefect of Police Maurice Papon displayed no sign of embarassment. Why should he?
In the next few years Papon established a special auxilary force, many of its recruits themselves Algerians, to pursue vendetta against suspected militants. There were reports of torture. The Algerian FLN waged its own campaign against police and alleged collaborators, and against rival political or trade union activists. In August 1961 it resumed bombings against the police. The enraged police increasingly attacked anyone they thought looked Algerian, sometimes hitting people who weren't even from the Maghreb.
On October 2, during the funeral of a policeman killed by the FLN, Papon proclaimed: "For one hit taken we shall give back ten!" That same day visiting Montrouge police station he told officers they need not worry too much about what they were permitted to do by the law. "You also must be subversive in the war that sets you against others. You will be covered, I give you my word on that."
Three days later the prefecture of police announced in a press statement the introduction of a curfew from 8.30 p.m. to 5.30 a.m. in Paris and its suburbs for "Algerian Muslim workers", "French Muslims" and "French Muslims of Algeria" (all three terms used by Papon, although the approximately 150,000 Algerians living at the time in Paris were officially considered French and possessed a French identity card.
The French Federation of the FLN called upon all Algerians in Paris to demonstrate peacefully against the curfew, widely regarded as a racist measure, on October 17. Thousands of riot police were mobilised to stop them, metro stations were closed, homes were raided overnight, and some 11,000 persons were arrested, and transported by bus to the same internment centers used under Vichy. Others including Moroccans and Tunisians, were taken to police stations.
About 4,000 to 5,000 people managed to march from the Place de la Republique to Opera, peacefully, before being blocked by the police. The demonstrators turned back, but at the Rex Cinema the police opened fire into the crowd, then charged them. Several people were killed.
Elswehere, Algerians were thrown off bridges into the Seine and drowned, while others were beaten up and killed by "welcoming committees" of cops waiting for them at the police stations or detention places. It is not known how many people were killed that day, or in the following days when corpses kept turning up in the river. One witness said at least 200. The prefecture of police said just two. A French government commission in 1998 admitted 48, but those who have investigated found even official documents listed more than that.
A group of police who were sickened by what they had seen said:
" What happened on 17 October 1961 and in the following days against the peaceful demonstrators, on which no weapons were found, morally forces us to bring our testimony and to alert public opinion... All guilty people must be punished. The punishment must be extended to all of the responsible people, those who give orders, those who feign of letting it happen, whatever their high office may be... Among the thousands of Algerians brought to the Parc des Expositions of the Porte de Versailles, tens have been killed by blows from rifle butts and pickaxe handles... In one of the extremity of the Neuilly bridge, groups of policemen on one side, CRS on the other, moved slowly towards each other. All the Algerians captured in this huge trap were knocked out and systematically thrown in the Seine. A good hundred people were subjected to this treatment... [In the Parisian police headquarters], torturers threw their victims by tens in the Seine which flows at only a few meters from the courtyard, to keep them from being examined by the forensic scientists. Not before having taken their watches and money. Mr. Papon, prefect of the police, and Mr. Legay, general director of the municipal police, assisted to these horrible scenes... These indisputable facts are only a small part of what has happened in these last days and what continues to happen. They are known by the municipal police. The extortions committed by the harkis, the district special brigades, the brigades des aggressions et violences are not secret any more. The little information given by the newspapers is nothing compared to the truth... We do not sign this text and sincerely regret it. We observe, not without sadness, that the current circumstances do not allow us to do so..."
The authorities were more concerned with finding out the anonymous authors than with investigating, let alone punishing, the crimes about which they spoke.
In 1944 many police had taken part in the rising which opened Paris to its liberators. But during the Cold War years those seen as sympathetic to the Left were likely to find their careers blocked, while others who had been notorious collaborators and outright fascists were welcomed back.
Maurice Papon would be their man, and them his. Before the war, Papon had served the French colonial regime in Syria in a security intelligence role. Returning to France in November 1940 he chose to join Marshall Petain's Vichy regime, and was appointed to the prefecture of the Gironde region, in charge of Jewish Affairs. He worked with the Nazi SS arranging the deportation of Jews from Bordeaux to Drancy, and on to Auschwitz, and he administered Vichy laws enabling him to sell off land and businesses which had been Jewish-owned.
De Gaulle met Papon in September 1944, and somehow though his wartime role can not have been secret, the Vichyite Papon was able to pass himself off as a good patriot for long enough to get new jobs in post-war France and then Algeria. He was made prefect of Constantine in October 1949, spent some time putting down nationalists in Morocco in 1954, then returned to Constantine in 1956, where his authority was soon associated with repression, detention camps and torture.
On March 13, 1958, policemen demonstrated in the courtyard of police headquarters - later to be where bodies of Algerians were piled - demanding special high risk payments because of the war. Encouraged by a right-wing deputy called Jean-Marie Le Pen, 2,000 of them tried to storm the National Assembly, to shouts of "Sales Juifs! A la Seine! Mort aux Fellaghas!" ("Dirty Jews, into the Seine!, Death to the Algerian rebels!"). The next day Maurice Papon was appointed Prefect of Police.
The attack on "sales juifs" may have been aimed at politicians they did not like, but it was also a tradition for the French Right going back to the time of Dreyfus, and strong among both Vichyites and the colons in Algeria. Racist police had also more than once attacked people in working class Jewish neighbourhoods after chasing back Communist demonstrations.
On February 8, 1962 the Paris police under Papon's leadership attacked just such a demonstration, which had been called against the right-wing OAS terrorists. Police blocked nearby streets at both ends before charging the crowd. Demonstrators tried to take refuge in the entry of the Charonne metro station, but police pursued them into the station and hurled heavy iron plates (used around the bases of trees and on metro vents) down onto demonstrators in the stairwells. Eight people were crushed to death or died from skull fractures and a ninth died from wounds in hospital. All of the dead, except a sixteen year-old boy, were members of the CGT unions. A massive funeral demonstration drew between quarter and a half million participants. The dead are buried in the Pere Lachaise cemetery near the Mur des Federes. Police blamed the violence on the demonstrators.
Papon had meanhile been awarded the Legion of Honour by De Gaulle. Forced out of his police position after the kidnap and murder of Moroccan oppositionist Mehdi Ben Barka, Papon was found another job as director of Sud Aviation, the French builders of Concorde, again owing to De Gaulle's support. After May 1968, he became a deputy, and then Minister of the Budget from 1978 under prime minister Raymond Barre and president Giscard d'Estaing.
On May 6, 1981 details about Vichy past emerged, when Le Canard enchaîné published documents signed by Papon which show his responsibility in the deportation of 1,690 Bordeaux Jews to Drancy internment camp from 1942 to 1944. After a very long investigation, this led to his eventual 1995 to 1998 trial and conviction for crimes against humanity. In 1998, he was stripped of all his decorations after his conviction for crimes against humanity. Sentenced to ten years, Papon was released on ill-health grounds a few years later. He died at home aged 96.
If some things are a matter of shame, there are those like the anonymous "republican policemen" who testified to what they knew, and those who insist on remembering the victims and uncovering the truth, and that is a matter for pride. Among writers who have pursued the truth about the 1961 Paris massacre and related events is Jean-Luc Einaudi (see reference below). Another is the historian and Socialist Party senator David Assouline. This evening there is going to be a commemoration of the Paris massacre and honour to its victims, organised by among others, the Association of Maghhrebi Workers in France and the Union of French Jews for Peace, who say:
Fifty years ago on October 17, 1961, during the war in Algeria, the FLN had organized a peaceful demonstration in the streets of Paris to support the cause of Algerian independence. Hundreds of Algerians - men, women and even children - were brutally massacred. While many bodies were recovered from the Seine, others littered the sidewalk in front of the Rex cinema, while 50 dead bodies were piled in the courtyard of the police headquarters in Paris. Remember that the Prefect of the time was a ... Maurice Papon, the same man who was convicted of crimes against humanity for his role in the deportation of Jews from Bordeaux during World War II, when he was Secretary General of the prefecture of the Gironde. Between the anti-Semitic atrocities and massacre of Algerians - designated at the time as "French Muslims' - Papon and France, both of them, showed a continuity in their hate crimes. This year, October 17 will mark the 50th Anniversary of the "Great Ratonnade" a prelude to the independence of Algeria. A demonstration, called by the UJFP and many other associations, will be held to commemorate this dark recent history of France.
See you Monday, October 17 to 18 hours before the Rex cinema at the corner of the Boulevard Bonne Nouvelle, and the Rue du Faubourg Poissonnière (M ° Bonne Nouvelle).