France's painful efforts to come to terms with the atrocities in its recent colonial history will take another hesitant step forward today with the official – or semi-official – admission that police murdered up to 200 Algerian demonstrators in Paris 40 years ago.
To the fury of right-wing politicians and police unions, the Socialist mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe, will unveil a plaque at a bridge near Notre Dame cathedral where dozens of unconscious Algerians were hurled into the river Seine and drowned on 17 October 1961. The plaque – the subject of bitter political argument last month in the Paris city council – will read: "To the memory of Algerian victims of the bloody repression of a peaceful demonstration".
At least 100 and perhaps as many as 200 Algerian demonstrators are believed to have been murdered by police that night. Only six killings "in self-defence" have been officially admitted by the French government. Scores of other bodies, found floating in the Seine or dumped outside Paris, were explained away as victims of fighting between rival Algerian independence groups.
Centre-right politicians say this is the wrong time to reopen Franco-Algerian wounds: the West is fighting a war against Islamic terrorism, and young French people of Algerian origin displayed contempt for their country by booing the national anthem and invading the pitch at a France-Algeria football match in Paris 10 days ago.
Mr Delanoe says it is the refusal to talk honestly about the past which still poisons relations between citizens of French and Algerian origin. "At this time especially, it is necessary to tell the descendants of the victims of 17 October 1961 that their history is our history and that they are part of the same community, and the same community of values," he said.
The centre-right parties, which dominated the Paris city council for 24 years until Mr Delanoe's victory last March, take a very different view. Some opposition councillors shouted "Taliban" when an assistant of Mr Delanoe – a Green councillor of Algerian origin – read the final wording of the plaque at the town council last month.
Police unions, and police veterans from the 1960s, are also furious. They say it is misleading to commemorate the Algerian victims without mentioning the 30 French police officers who were murdered by Algerian independence fighters.
Tens of thousands of Algerians – then French citizens – converged on Paris on 17 October 1961 to protest against repressive measures taken against them by the prefect of police. Although the demonstration was peaceful, it was fired upon by riot police. About 10,000 people were arrested and detained.
According to the testimony of "moderate" police officers and survivors, the detainees were beaten. Up to 200 were thrown unconscious into the Seine from the Pont St Michel, near police headquarters on the Ile de Cité. Others were thrown into canals.
Gérard Monate, 78, then the deputy head of a moderate police union, the SGP, says police officers who objected were beaten by their colleagues. He estimated the number of murders that day at about 100. Other evidence suggests that killings went on for several days and might have totalled 200.
The Paris prefect of police at the time was Maurice Papon, a senior official in the Vichy administration during the Second World War. He was jailed three years ago for his role in sending French Jews to Nazi death camps. In 1961, his past had not yet come to light. He was a trusted official of President Charles de Gaulle, who had ordered him to "hold Paris" against the Algerian protests.
A book published in 1998 alleged that Mr Papon inspired, witnessed and then covered up the attacks on the Algerian demonstrators. A few days beforehand, at the funeral of a police officer murdered by Algerian extremists, he told his men: "For every blow we receive, we will give them 10 back." Mr Papon sued the author of the book from prison in 1999 and lost.
One question remains unanswered. How much did President de Gaulle – who conceded Algerian independence in 1962 – know about the police killings?Reuse content