New police powers raise spectre of Seine pogrom

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French policing is unrecognisable from the heavy-handed responses of previous years, not least 1968. But the government decision to adopt emergency powers to enforce curfews with a law originally passed to combat violence in Algeria in its war of independence has raised the stakes considerably.

An editorial in Le Monde warned yesterday that the decision to resurrect a draconian 1955 law will send a brutal message to the disaffected youth; namely that, 50 years on, France intends to treat them just as it did their grandparents.

The signed editorial was referring to one of the darkest episodes of modern France, one which remains largely unknown. On 17 October 1961, Paris police, led by a former Vichy minister, Maurice Papon, killed up to 300 protesting Algerians. Some were hurled, still alive, into the Seine.

The sequence of events has not been established, but at the core is an allegation that Papon, also accused of deporting more than 1,600 Jews to death camps during the war, gave police clearance to attack the protesters and dump them into the river. After a curfew was imposed in Paris following the murder of 11 police officers by nationalists, up to 40,000 Algerians arrived in the city centre. At the Pont de la Concorde Metro station police began striking people over the head with clubs.

Saad Ouazene, then a 29-year-old foundry worker and an organiser for the Algerian National Liberation Front, had his skull fractured. "I saw people collapse in pools of blood. Some were beaten to death," he said. "The bodies were thrown onto lorries and tossed into the Seine from the Pont de la Concorde."

Some 50 people were clubbed to death in the courtyard of the Paris police headquarters, according to the testimony of a number of shocked policemen.

Police records reveal that Papon, who was on the scene and later in the command post, told officers they must be "subversive" in the war. "You will be covered, I give you my word," he said.

After the massacre, dozens of bodies were taken from the Seine as far downriver as Rouen.

Attempts to publicise the massacre were censored. Jean-Paul Sartre called it a pogrom in Les Temps Moderne. Papon had the edition pulped.

It has long been alleged that Papon had tacit government backing. There has never been a full enquiry and the archives remain closed.

Papon, now aged 95, was jailed in 1999 for complicity in crimes against humanity. He was released in 2002.