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Macron acknowledges France's "unjustified crimes" in the atrocious 1961 crackdown on Algerian protesters

The French president becomes the first leader of the Fifth Republic to commemorate the murder of some 200 Algerians by the Paris police six decades later
Macron

AFP/YOAN VALAT  -   El presidente francés Emmanuel Macron

On the banks of the River Seine, in the vicinity of the Parisian Bizon Bridge, the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the murder of some 200 Algerian citizens at the hands of the French police took place this Saturday, in what is, according to historians, the most violent act of repression against a peaceful mobilisation recorded in contemporary Western Europe.

For the first time in six decades, a French head of state not only had the capacity to acknowledge the events, but also attended the ceremony in remembrance of the victims and denounced the "unjustified crimes" committed against Algerians. Although Macron did not intervene during the ceremony, he observed a minute's silence, laid a wreath on the banks of the Seine, and accompanied the guests during the throwing of white roses into the river, to express himself later in a communiqué.

Emmanuel Macron thus became the first leader of the Fifth Republic, formed in 1958, to commemorate the tragedy. However, the current president was not the first to speak out on this issue. In 2012, the socialist François Hollande acknowledged the event, something his predecessors in office, from Charles de Gaulle to Nicolas Sarkozy, had not done.

"The crimes committed that night under the authority of Maurice Papon are inexcusable for the Republic," Macron said, alluding to the Paris police chief who ordered the violent repression of the peaceful protest of 17 October 1961 and who had previously participated in the deportations of 1,600 Jews during the Second World War. A reductionist statement that has disappointed activists and historians alike, who had hoped for an acknowledgement of the state's role in covering up the events.

Emmanuel Macron's term in office has been characterised by veiled apologies for a past, the French past, replete with historical grievances, something as anomalous as it is laudable if it serves the right ends. He did so first by assuming France's responsibility for the Rwandan genocide, then by acknowledging the devastation of nuclear testing in Polynesia and, ultimately, by formally pardoning the Harkis, the locals who supported the French army during the Algerian war.

Guerra de Argelia
PHOTO/AP  -  In this 27 May 1956 file photo, French troops seal off Algiers, a 400-year-old Arab quarter

Macron also apologised to Albania when, instead of the Balkan nation's anthem, the anthem of Andorra was played before the start of a match between Les Bleus and the Albanian national football team. However, the Elysée set a limit when it said in January that there was "neither remorse nor apology" for the French occupation of Algeria.

"France looks at its entire history with lucidity and recognises clearly established responsibilities," the president concluded, referring, among other events, to that fateful Parisian October night that saw a massacre that still echoes in the present.

Between 20,000 and 30,000 people gathered in the streets of Paris to march against the night-time curfew imposed by the French authorities on Algerian citizens after a series of deadly attacks on police officers. The Algerian National Liberation Front, the formation that led Algeria's independence from the metropolis, had called for a demonstration on 17 October 1961 that was to have a tragic end.

The Paris police cracked down hard on the protests before they could even begin, arresting some 12,000 demonstrators, the vast majority of whom were beaten to death, shot or thrown into the Seine, a site where numerous unidentified corpses were found over the course of several weeks. A version contested by the French authorities, who acknowledged only three deaths. 

Tensions

Timing also matters. And Macron knows it. The event took place in the midst of growing tensions between Algeria and France, which erupted after the French president's statements to the newspaper Le Monde in which he questioned the historiographical account of Algeria for not being based on the facts, but "completely rewritten and based on hatred of France".

Macron also questioned the existence of the Algerian nation before French colonialism. The straw that broke the camel's back and provoked the Algerian government to immediately recall the ambassador in Paris for consultations and issue a communiqué labelling his words as "irresponsible", having led to "an unacceptable attack on the memory of five million and 630,000 martyrs who sacrificed themselves in heroic resistance against the French colonial invasion and in the Blessed War of National Liberation".