Paris 1961: Algerians, State Terror, and Memory

Paris 1961: Algerians, State Terror, and Memory

Paris 1961: Algerians, State Terror, and Memory

Paris 1961: Algerians, State Terror, and Memory

Synopsis

The massacre of Algerian demonstrators by the Paris police on the night of 17 October 1961 is one of the most contested events in contemporary French history. This book provides a multi-layered investigation of the repression through a critical examination of newly opened archives, oralsources, the press and contemporary political movements and debates. The roots of violence are traced back to counter-insurgency techniques developed by the French military in North Africa and introduced into Paris to crush the independence movement among Algerian migrant workers. The study showshow and why this event was rapidly expunged from public visibility in France, but was kept alive by immigrant and militant minorities, to resurface in a dramatic form after the 1980s. Through this case-study the authors explore both the dynamics of state terror as well as the complex memorialprocesses by which these events continue to inform and shape post-colonial society.

Excerpt

As darkness fell on the evening of 17 October 1961 Parisians queuing for cinemas, seated in cafés, or strolling the central boulevards were astonished by the unprecedented sight of tens of thousands of Algerian demonstrators marching in disciplined rank through the heart of the capital in protest against police repression. The surprise of bystanders arose from a number of causes: by the autumn of 1961 France had been engaged for seven years in a violent colonial war to crush the Algerian struggle for independence, yet here was the 'enemy', the supporters and militants of the Front de libération nationale (FLN), defiantly demonstrating en masse in the streets of the capital. Secondly, throughout the war the 180,000 Algerian migrants in the Paris region lived in squalid lodging houses and shanty-towns, 'ghettoized' or enclave zones in the industrial suburbs that were isolated from the chic boulevards of the centre and in which the inhabitants remained largely invisible to most Parisians. A key objective of the FLN organizers was, through an 'invasion' of the city centre by three massive columns, to break the spatial segregation imposed on the immigrant workers, a segregation that had been reinforced by violent police repression and, since 5 October, by a discriminatory night-time curfew imposed uniquely on Algerian workers. Through a total mobilization of the Algerian community, a pacific demonstration which included women, children, and the elderly, the FLN intended to dramatically show the media and international opinion its uncontested popular support base as the unique voice of Algerian nationalism and reinforce the position of its leadership which was currently engaged in negotiations for independence with de Gaulle's government.

As the three columns converged through the rain on the central area, closely marshalled by FLN militants, the predominant feeling among the demonstrators was one of quiet pride and even euphoria that at long last they could publicly affirm their solidarity and identity as Algerians after many years of extreme police repression, isolation, and humiliation. Although there was trepidation when confronted with the heavily armed ranks of riot police, few imagined the violence with which the security forces would unleash a wave of murderous attacks, the bloodiest act of state repression of street protest in Western Europe in modern history.

If we leave aside situations of insurrection, revolution, or civil war in Europe, the number of
instances in modern history when state forces have fired on and killed political street demonstrators
has been relatively limited, but for comparison the following can be noted: Champ de Mars, Paris,
17 July 1791, the National Guard killed 50 demonstrators; Peterloo, Manchester, 16 August 1819,
11 killed; right-wing riot outside Paris parliament, 6 February 1934, 15 killed; 14 July 1953 demon
stration, Paris, 7 killed; 'Bloody Sunday' in Londonderry, 30 January 1972, British troops killed 14.
On Kristallnacht, 9 November 1938, although not a demonstration, Nazi gangs killed 91 Jews in . . .

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