Sunday, 16 October 2011

17 octobre 1961

October 17th 2011 marks the 50th anniversary of an event which even today five decades later remains unexplained. The date is a significant one for many people, and several parts of Paris - including the Pont Saint Michel where this plaque can be found - are marked by the event, but accounts of what actually happened differ widely.

In 1961, France was a country at war. It had begun in 1954, when an Algerian uprising against French colonial rule led to a war that would last until independance was granted in 1962. Although the conflict took place on Algerian soil, it naturally increased tensions across France, a country which was home to many people who had been born in Algeria.

In early October 1961, the French government installed a curfew, stating that all people of North African origin should stay at home between the hours of 8.30pm and 5.30am. As a protest against this restriction, the Algerian community decided to organise a peaceful march through the streets of Paris on October 17th (although some reports state that the Algerian community was told to march by their leaders, the FLN, under threat of death if they disobeyed).

The details of what happened next have been debated ever since, and it is far too complex a topic for me to attempt to analyse. Nobody seems to deny that people died that day, but estimates of the number vary from 70 to 300, which is why the plaque says simply 'des nombreux algeriens'. Here on the Pont Saint Michel, protesters are said to have been trapped by the police and then either thrown in the Seine, or to have jumped there themselves in panic. Many others were reportedly killed later after their arrest.

The French state has never acknowledged responsibility for this event which is today known as the Paris massacre of 1961. Police actions during the day remain a state secret, although the city of Paris did place this plaque - which speaks of a sanglante repression - on the Pont Saint Michel 10 years ago for the 40th anniversary.

It seems incredible that a fully democratic country such as France could keep such secrets today. A march is being organised to mark the anniversary, but it seems unlikely that the full truth will emerge in the short term (particularly with Presidential elections looming in 2012). Behind the huge drama of this event though, are numerous smaller tragedies. What price a life if nobody can say when you died or why?


Thérèse said...

I think that a lot of people are aware of this sad fact... I was...

Charles in NC said...

I was not aware of it, so I appreciate your highlighting it. It's a sad thing indeed. Certainly the U.S. government has been responsible for atrocities over the years, mostly in other countries during wartime, but having it happen in the middle of France's capital city is surprising, to say the least. BTW, the past tense of "to lead" is "led" easy mistake when you type fast!

Owen said...

Many thanks Adam for bringing attention to this. I'd certainly never heard of it before, so the efforts at maintaining secrecy were effective up to a point. Unbelievable amounts of blood have been spilled in France over the centuries, but this is recent, within my lifetime. Sad and shocking story. I hope more of the truth will come out in time.

Adam said...

Charles - thanks! I definitely need a proofreader sometimes!

Thérèse & Owen: I was aware of this event, but looking into it in more detail, it seems amazing that so little is known about what actually happened. I suppose the closest example I can think of is the Bloody Sunday events in Derry, but at least there we know how many people died, if not exactly why they were killed or by whom.

It is easy to understand a need for secrecy during conflict, but I don't know why there is a need to keep it all under wraps 50 years later.

Adam said...

Further things I've noted from the way the anniversary of the event has been marked today.

There has been a lot of political point scoring, with Presidential candidate François Hollande throwing roses from the Pont de Clichy, and promising to recognise the massacre if he is elected.

The left clearly think there is room to attack the incumbent government on this topic, and it is a reflection of a wider left/right rift in the country. The right was in power in 1961, and somehow the silence since has become seen as a right-wing cover up. However, this does not explain why the silence continued under Mitterand, nor why a Jospin (Socialist Prime Minister) led investigation concluded that only around 40 deaths could be linked back to the events of that day.

The geography of the city is also a tense reflection of this debate. A march was organised this evening following the original route to the plaque on the Pont Saint Michel - which faces not towards the river but back towards the police headquarters.

To the west of the city, the left-wing run authority of Nanterre - where many of the original protestors were living in shanty housing in 1961 - organised a march that was supposed to finish on the Pont de Neuilly, the scene of one of the massacre spots. However, the right-wing council of Neuilly refused to give the marchers access to the bridge!

Until full light is shone upon the events of that day, certain parts of the city will remain hotspots of allegory and counterstory - something that is probably more dangerous than the truth.

Yuriy said...

Not to advocate the actions of the then French government, and we all know that there was quite a big deal of either cover-ups, silencing actions or comfortable forgetfulness on the part of the former (think Vel d'Hiv, Maurice Papon, and the general dwindling of les epurations legales within a few years after the Liberation), but one has to bear in mind of what the entire Algerian war affair was and used to mean back then. There were numerous bloody terrorist acts committed by the Algerian freedom fighters, involving civilians and innocent people. We know the honest position taken by Albert Camus. We know the people who preferred to remain in the constraints of their ideology (Sartre) or people who even today pride themselves on the massacres they took part in (Jacques Verges). So, it is not that simple or unequivocal an issue to start pointing fingers and pronounce judgements, especially if the respected comment posters have no clue as far as the historical reality is concerned. As often the case is: the innocent victims were not that innocent, the good guys turned out to be not any better than the bad guys etc.

Adam said...

Yuriy: Thanks for your interesting comment and for widening the debate.

As far as this blog is concerned, I'm interested in places and the stories behind them. For me, this story begins with the plaque on the Pont Saint Michel and the significance of a date. The question I asked myself was how can the city of Paris recognise a 'bloody repression' and the deaths of a number of people when the French state still denies that this took place?

Indeed, Bertrand Delanoe, socialist mayor of Paris, was doing it again yesterday - "j'accomplis ce geste pour l'honneur de Paris et pour l'honneur de la France" he said at a ceremony.

I doubt that there is such a thing as a single truth for such events. As you point out, the Algerian freedom fighters in France were killing people themselves - 11 policemen in the weeks before this event, and countless numbers of Algerians who would not follow their directives.

This created an atmosphere which made possible the events of this day, and also led to the confusion that followed. However, if historians can claim that 300 people died on this day, then that means that 300 people were either killed or disappeared around this period, without anyone being able to say why or when.

It seems to me that after 50 years, enough time has passed for an in-depth investigation to be launched. The results will probably point fingers at both the police and the Algerian freedom fighters, but this must be better than the silence that exists today - a vacuum which leads towards the creation of myths and powerful symbols of pilgrimage - like this plaque on the Pont Saint Michel.

Stephen said...

People make this out to be so political. I went by to pay my respects last year and people had come exressly to be provocative and get interviewed by the journalists. There were people there from extreme right political parties (won't name any names) making the argument that they shouldn't be mourned because they were terrorists. With all due respect for people freedom to interpret history as they will. That's disgusting. You can at least keep it to yourself the day people have come to pay ther respects.

Yuriy - if you want to go tit for tat on historical facts, you've left out the terrorist attacks by the OAS

Yuriy said...

Adam, well said, nothing to add.
Stephen, I did not (leave the OAS). The French atrocities are - or at least were back in the day - well known, well publicized and well documented. The one-sided approach is unacceptable though, at least in my books and IMHO. The OAS didn't, however, leave any lasting effect or influence on the modern world, whereas the Algerian did (still does). For years after the independence the country governed by the ex freedom fighters harbored terrorists and killers of all persuasions. And I won't even go into the discussions about the modern disciples of Djamila Bouhired and Co.
But the blog is about Paris indeed, so I will refrain from any more unpleasant political discussions.

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