Algerian and French History 1961

The Massacre of October 17, 1961

By Mitch Abidor

One often sees at railroad crossings in France a warning sign. The sign says: “One train can hide another.” In the story of opposition to the French war in Algeria, a similar expression can be used: “One massacre can hide another.” For in the memory and historiography of the anti-war struggle, the events of October 17, 1961 have received short shrift, blocked by the memory of the events at Metro Charonne on February 8, 1962.

On that date a massive French Communist party (PCF) rally calling for peace in Algeria (note that the slogan was “Peace in Algeria,” not “Independence for Algeria”), was attacked by the police, and nine people were killed at the entrance to the Charonne metro station. Their funeral was a massive event, and those killed were buried in a place of honor at Pere Lachaise Cemetery, not far from the wall where the last defenders of the Paris Commune made their stand.

October 17, 1961 was quite a different affair. On that date somewhere between 40 and 400 demonstrators were killed, some of whose bodies were later fished out of the Seine. No cortege followed their bodies to the cemetery. These victims weren’t French Communists. They were Algerians.

In the years leading up to that date the situation in France for Algerians had seriously worsened. The Police Prefect, Maurice Papon, had instituted a curfew in 1958, which had been largely ignored. Arrests and round-ups of Algerians suspected of working with the FLN were regular occurrences.

The situation for Algerians in the metropolis was often a reflection of the state of the war. When in the summer of 1961 the negotiations between the French government and the Provisional Revolutionary Government of Algeria (GPRA) hit a roadblock, the situation in France changed as well. Between August and October 1961 the FLN killed eleven policemen in France, and many more were wounded. During this same period the police mounted a mini dirty war against the Algerian community, with uncounted numbers of Algerians killed, “disappeared,” or found floating in the Seine. Police organizations called for drastic measures from the government, and Papon, in a speech at a policeman’s funeral, informed them: “For each blow received, we'll respond with ten.” On October 5 he put in place a curfew covering all “French Muslims from Algeria.”

In response, the FLN decided to reply with a mass action. So on October 7 it called a halt to armed actions in France, and on October 10 issued instructions for a boycott of the curfew, a general strike, and demonstrations. The peaceful nature of the demonstrations was stressed, as was caution in face of the forces of repression. The Algerian community was warned as well of the need to be prepared for arrests. They had even gone so far as to prepare the slogans to be chanted in defense of any Algerians arrested during the demonstrations.

But the police were in an overheated state, and when the demonstrations finally occurred at various locations in Paris, the police went after the Algerians with a vengeance. Demonstrators were beaten and, as the events continued, the police began firing on the unarmed and peaceful demonstrators. Aside from the shooting and the beating, men were tossed into the Seine. For hours anyone who appeared to be Algerian was at risk of losing his or her life.

More than 10,000 Algerians were arrested and interned in several locations in Paris and its suburbs. There, too, the shooting continued, as did deaths from untreated wounds. In all, the number of dead varies from a low of 40, issued by a government commission in 1998, to almost 400. The lower number is explained by the fact that many records have disappeared in the interim. The higher figure was the result of research in cemetery records and other sources by the historian JL Einaudi.

Maurice Papon who, as Prefect personally supervised the events of October 17, and who, in order to justify the massacre, insisted that Algerians fired on the police, was eventually sentenced for his crimes. Not against the Algerians, but for an earlier part of his biography which had escaped notice. In 1998 he was convicted for his role in the deportation and death of 1560 Jews from the Bourdeaux region during World War II.