When French police turned on Algerian protesters – and why it matters after Paris attacks

A crackdown in 1961 resonates as troubled times afflict Paris once again. Yasmine Ryan reports from Algiers

Yasmine Ryan
Sunday 29 November 2015 19:33
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French police observe the march of between 20,000 and 30,000 pro-FLN Algerians in Paris in 1961. They would later massacre hundreds of the protesters
French police observe the march of between 20,000 and 30,000 pro-FLN Algerians in Paris in 1961. They would later massacre hundreds of the protesters

It was an unfamiliar role reversal for Algerians when Paris came under terrorist attack earlier this month. While the French capital was thrown in to chaos and confusion, the streets of Algiers were quiet and many of its inhabitants were anxiously trying to telephone their loved ones in Paris, in fear for their safety.

For what became known as the “black decade” of the 1990s, Algeria suffered horrific attacks and massacres by Islamist insurgents, sometimes almost daily, aimed at undermining its military government – with a heavy civilian death toll. In contrast, it is currently one of the calmest countries in a region beset by mass shootings and bomb attacks, even if that calm is sometimes uneasy.

But while the Paris attacks remind Algerians of their own relatively recent struggles, they also evoke earlier and still unresolved historical grievances, magnified by the rise in xenophobia and support for the far right in France.

Makhlouf Aouli, 76, is now a retired civil servant who lives in the well-to-do Hydra neighbourhood on the crest of a hill just above Algiers and was dressed in green corduroy jacket and jeans, with a tartan scarf against the rain, when he met The Independent. He is sympathetic to Parisians and what they are now enduring, but like many of his generation remembers only too clearly an earlier Paris massacre – one which, he says, was a defining moment of Algeria’s struggle for independence, and one which renders inaccurate the claim that the Paris attacks were the deadliest violence in the French capital since the Second World War.

On 17 October 1961, French police massacred between 200 and 300 unarmed Algerian protesters in the heart of Paris. “Algerians were drowned, strangled and dropped from planes into the sea,” said Mr Aouli. At the time, he was among those involved in efforts by the National Liberation Front (FLN) to take its war of independence on to French soil.

In the late 1950s he was a top co-ordinator in Paris for the outlawed FLN, and had been arrested shortly before the massacre – which meant, perhaps fortunately, that he was in prison when the terrible events unfolded.

In 1961 Maurice Papon, a Nazi collaborator who had willingly played a key role in the deportation of more than 1,600 Jewish French citizens to concentration camps during the Second World War, was head of the Parisian police forces and imposed a curfew on all French-Algerians. Denouncing this as racist, the FLN called on its supporters to hold a peaceful protest. A quarter of French Algerians participated, with the support of many French citizens of European descent.

Acting with Papon’s blessing, and his explicit promise that they would enjoy impunity, police responded with an orgy of violence. Many removed their badges, to make them less identifiable. Anyone with olive skin became a target; not only French-Algerians but many people of Tunisian, Moroccan, Spanish and Italian origin were also beaten and murdered.

Some 11,000 Arabs were rounded up in the crackdown that day, many of them taken to the Vélodrome d’Hiver, the same stadium used to hold Jews 20 years earlier before they were sent to concentration camps. Others were drowned in the Seine, a method that had already been used quietly to dispose of FLN activists.

Mr Aouli, along with thousands of other prisoners, participated in a 20-day hunger strike in protest at the killings. Some of the prisoners died. Some foreign journalists witnessed the scenes, and Mr Aouli believes the killings pushed the then President Charles de Gaulle to conclude negotiations paving the way for Algeria’s independence the following year – at which point Mr Aouli and others were released.

Now he is part of a continuing campaign to win official recognition of the massacre by the French, and justice for all Algerian victims of state violence during the colonial era.

Papon himself was finally convicted of his role in the Second World War deportations in 1998, but attempts to prosecute him for the 1961 massacre foundered. The French authorities are still reluctant directly to confront or condemn the countless abuses committed during the colonial era.

French courts maintained that the terms of the 1962 Evian Accords, which led to Algerian independence, protect French officials from any legal action. Papon died in 2007, unrepentant, and taking his Légion d’honneur medal with him to his grave, defying critics to the end.

In 2012, President François Hollande acknowledged the massacre for the first time. Yet many in France are either ignorant of the massacre or refuse to acknowledge that it took place.

For Mr Aouli, the failure to confront such aspects of its colonial history means France is still struggling to comprehend past errors of foreign policy and its own history of institutional racism.

“They want to go around teaching other people lessons, but they should also learn lessons about their own history and show a bit of humility,” Mr Aouli said. “There are some [political] currents in France that today still consider Algerians, or French citizens of Algerian origin, as a colonised people, and that continue to treat them as such.”

Most upsetting for Algerians like Mr Aouli is the growing strength of the far-right Front National, led by Marine Le Pen, since this year’s two horrific attacks on French soil. That party, founded by Ms Le Pen’s now estranged father, Jean-Marie le Pen, has its roots in the darkest elements of France’s 20th century political history, the same roots as Papon.

The older Le Pen has admitted using robust interrogation methods, though he has denied using torture in Algeria, and like Papon, has never faced charges for this. Mr Aouli said: “The far-right today is exactly like it was back then.”

True to the party’s roots, the Front National has continued to view French citizens of North African descent as “outsiders”. French politicians from across the spectrum have backed Ms Le Pen’s calls for mosques to abandon prayers in Arabic and switch to French.

Her estranged father, meanwhile, is arguing for the guillotine to be brought back. It does not augur well for Algerians living in France, Mr Aouli fears – nor for France to recognise those uncomfortable elements of its own history that Algerians cannot forget.

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