A peaceful demonstration on the Champs Elysees in Paris with around 30,000 Algerians ended 60 years ago in a massacre, which was silenced for many years.
The official death toll after the bloody night was three, of which two were Algerians. Later, historians have estimated that between 50 and 200 people died. The reason for the uncertain death toll is, among other things, that the French police dumped many of the victims into the Seine River.
The demonstration took place on October 17, 1961 and was aimed at a curfew that only applied to people of Algerian origin, and which had been introduced just two weeks earlier.
Most of the participants had traveled downtown from the poor northern and eastern suburbs of Paris to show their opposition to what they perceived as a deeply unjust coercive measure.
Among the participants were men, women and children, and many of them were dressed in their best clothes for the occasion.
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Even before the massacre, many Algerians had been subjected to frequent police checks and harassment, even on their way to work. They were also targeted by racist attacks under the auspices of a terrorist group that wanted Algeria to remain part of France.
The reason for the curfew was that the French authorities wanted to prevent the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) from raising money for its fight against French colonial power, a war that ended with Algerian independence just a year later.
It was the FLN that called the demonstration. In the weeks leading up to the demonstration, the group had killed five French policemen and, to stop the protest, the French authorities deployed some 10,000 policemen.
The man who ordered them to attack was Maurice Papon. He was the Paris police chief, even though it was a well-known fact that he had collaborated with the Nazis during World War II.
“Many of the victims were killed by police shooting, dozens more drowned in the Seine and several were strangled after being thrown to the ground and covered with piles of corpses,” it read the description to the National Museum of the History of Immigration in France.
French historian Emmanuel Blanchard has called the massacres the worst repression in Europe after World War II.
It was later revealed that some policemen were affected by erroneous reports that some of their colleagues had died during the demonstration.
Papon was subsequently convicted of war crimes in connection with the deportation of 1,600 Jews to concentration camps.
During the Papon trial in 1997, historian Jean-Luc Einaudi said that Papon police forces opened fire on Algerians and that the police were then observed as they dumped the dead into the Seine.
But, apart from a few eyewitnesses, few knew what had happened. Attempts were made to hide the misdeeds and fall asleep. However, rumors spread and on one of the bridges over the Seine, near the Louvre, a famous graffiti was written that read “Here we drown the Algerians.”
However, many Algerians never made it to the demonstration. They were surrounded by the police when they got off the subway and the bus to the internment camps that had been prepared in advance. There they were beaten or deported to Algeria. Those who were allowed to go home were lucky. An estimated 12,000 people ended up in the camps.
Jacques Simonnet, a psychiatrist who was a student in 1961, witnessed the treatment of inmates in one of the camps. He says they were kicked, beaten and beaten with sticks.
– The violence reached an indescribable level, he says.
In 2012, then-French President François Hollande acknowledged that the attack on protesters was a massacre.
Algerians who demonstrated for their right to independence were killed in a bloody repression. The Republic clearly recognizes these facts. I honor the memory of the victims, Hollande said.
The socialist mayor of Paris had previously placed a commemorative plaque near the police headquarters, not far from Notre-Dame Cathedral, to commemorate the massacre that took place in the heart of Paris’s most famous district.