"It was the most violent state repression ever provoked by a street demonstration in all of Western Europe in contemporary history," say British historians Jim House and Neil MacMaster of the event. It was in any case the wound whose pus would infect relations between France and Algeria for many years to come.
It happened on 17 October 1961, when the war for Algerian independence (1954-1962) was drawing to a close. But the operations and attacks of the last few months had exacerbated tensions, and Algerians had become suspects, if not culprits, on the territory of the metropolis simply because they showed their North African features.
On that date, the Parisian police were particularly excited. Five officers had been killed in as many attacks, and all of them were suffering because they felt they were being targeted by "Algerian terrorists" embedded in the heart of the French capital. The prefect on whom they depend is Maurice Papon, a character with a sinister past for having been involved in the hunt and capture of 1,600 Jews in the Bordeaux wine region between 1942 and 1944, many of whom would die in the Nazi extermination camps to which they would be deported. Papon, who would become a minister several years later under the presidency of Valery Giscard d'Estaing, gave the order on 17 October 1961 to repress by all means the demonstration in Paris organised by the French Federation of the National Liberation Front (FLN).
There were two reasons for this "peaceful march" which, according to the sources on hand, was to bring together between 20,000 and 40,000 demonstrators: to demand an "Algerian Algeria", i.e. independence, and to demand the lifting of the curfew imposed by the Ministry of the Interior exclusively on "French Muslims from Algeria" living in metropolitan France, a discrimination they considered intolerable because it presupposed their guilt.
With the Gallic media subjected to drastic censorship, the balance of that day was reduced to the Prefecture's communiqué: just three Algerian deaths, "victims of clashes between factions of the FLN itself, and numerous wounded of varying degrees among the police forces".
The reality was quite different: the death toll among the demonstrators was at least 120, raised to over 200 by the historian Jean-Luc Einaudi (La Bataille de Paris, 17 October 1961, Ed. Seuil). The repression was brutal, for in addition to shooting at point-blank range, the police spared no mercy in beating and beating to death many of their victims, who were subsequently thrown into the Seine. The appearance of the corpses in the river the next morning was fiercely suppressed by the censors, while rumours of alleged attacks and attacks on police forces in various parts of the capital were amplified. Arrests multiplied and beatings in police stations increased in quantity and intensity, as brutality was practically the general rule with any suspect from the very outbreak of the war.
Sixty years after that episode, the truth is being restored, and even President Enmanuel Macron has made it one of the three commemorations and tributes to those who suffered in that brutal war. The first of these has already been fulfilled: recognition, rehabilitation and compensation for the harkis, the Algerians who served as aides and auxiliaries to the French troops. The third will be on 18 March next, when the Evian Accords, which sanctioned Algeria's definitive independence, will be commemorated.
All this comes at a time when institutional relations between the two countries have entered a delicate phase, to say the least, following statements by President Macron, transcribed by the daily Le Monde, in which he called the Algerian rulers a "tired political-military system founded on hatred of France", as well as relying on "a memorialistic rent that is not based on truth". These phrases have provoked the anger of Algiers, which has recalled its ambassador to Paris for consultations.