By Nat Krieger
To call the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris the worst mass killing in the City of Lights since World War II is evidence of the mainstream media’s collective and selective amnesia.
On October 17, 1961, at the climax of the Algerian War of Independence against France, tens of thousands of peaceful protesters filled the boulevards of Paris to demand an end to a police ordered curfew that prohibited “Algerian workers…[and] French Algerian Muslims” from being in the streets from 8:30 pm to 5:30 am. The Prefect of the Paris police, the same man who rounded up 1,600 Jews for the Nazis during World War II, was ready for the demonstrators. The police cordoned the Algerians off into small groups, or trapped them on bridges over the Seine, and either opened fire or waded in, batons swinging.
Thousands were arrested and detained in the same velodrome where the Jews of Paris had been held for transport to Auschwitz 19 years earlier. An estimated 200 demonstrators (the exact number will never be known) were shot or beaten to death in the streets of Paris, in prisons across the city, even in the courtyard of Police Headquarters steps from Notre Dame, their mutilated bodies dumped into the Seine for nights afterward.
As with the hundreds of other massacres committed by all sides in the decades of struggle between France and her former colonies there has never been an accounting, a trial, or any kind of process to establish the truth, let alone reconciliation.
The story and background of this massacre, hidden in plain site, reverberate today—both in the multi ethnic France that is the unintended legacy of the French Empire, and in the Western media’s selective coverage of terrorism. “The more things change, the more they stay the same” is, after all, a French expression…
The morning of the massacre, activists from the FLN (National Liberation Front, the armed group leading the Algerian Revolution) searched the demonstrators to make sure no one was carrying weapons. The Algerian issue was due to come up in front of the U.N. that November and if the Paris police over-reacted, the FLN wanted to the world to see unarmed protesters being beaten. “Why on the grand boulevards,” explained a march organizer later, “because Parisians, foreigners, and journalists would be there.”
In one sense the police slaughter was beyond anything the FLN could have hoped for, but they failed to take into account the ability of the major Western news outlets to go blind and deaf at a moment’s notice. For local journalists it had been a long moment: In the name of state security the French government had instituted strict censorship since the Algerian War began seven year before, and on the morning of October 17 all journalists were ordered off the streets. Yet even though foreign reporters reported seeing piles of corpses in the center of Paris, and others heard reports of bodies floating down the Seine in the days that followed, the French press followed the government’s line that the protesters had opened fire first, and that the death toll was two.
In the English speaking world, The Times of London blamed both sides for the violence and criticized the French government for deporting many of the marchers, which was reported on French government T.V., because that would mean less remittances going back to Algeria thus adding to social instability. Time Magazine called the marchers “a mob” and described them “swarming”. With an apparently straight face The New York Times commented that “Paris is remarkably free of racism.”
According to James J. Napoli, a veteran reporter currently with the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, “Both French and foreign journalists in Paris seemed tacitly to agree that nothing should be done to further destabilize the French government or endanger de Gaulle, who was widely seen as the last, best hope for navigating France out of its troubles.”
Maybe, but it’s difficult not to see racism as the primary factor: Four months after the massacre, nine unarmed French Communist demonstrators were killed by police in front of the Charonne Metro station in Paris. Five days later the city came to a halt as nearly half a million people followed the dead to their final resting place in Père-Lachais cemetery, where they were interred near the heroes of the Paris Commune.
The Paris massacre of October, 1961, was a crime born of larger contexts. What atrocity isn’t? From the end of August to early October of that year The FLN killed 11 policemen in Paris, and wounded 17. At the October 2 funeral of one of these officers, Maurice Papon, the Vichy official who the Nazis praised as “quick and efficient” and who de Gaulle had appointed Prefect of the Paris police, promised that “for every each blow we will strike back ten-fold.”
Papon existed to please the winners. When the Allies arrived in Bordeaux in 1944 he had already changed sides. In 1956, two years into the Algerian rebellion, he was appointed Prefect for the Algerian city of Constantine where he perfected the use of torture on pretty much everyone brought in. After two years in Constantine he brought his particular skill set to his new posting in Paris, where he promptly turned away from the Rightist Generals back in Algeria and became a loyal Gaullist.
The number of Algerians living in Pairs who disappeared or turned up dead in the street or the river between 1958 and October, 1961, can only be guessed at; probably in the hundreds. Yet that figure is low compared to the Café Wars during which the FLN bombed and shot its way to the helm of the Algerian revolution. This intra-Algerian, intra-rebel war fought across France left between 4,000 and 5,000 dead and at least that many wounded. Bombs and drive by machine-gunnings were the weapons of choice, blowing apart the targets, companions, waiters, and passersby.
Of course that number was equaled by a single weeklong slaughter of Algerian men, women, and children in and around Philippville, (now Skikda) Algeria, by the French Army and posses of pieds noirs (Algerian born Frenchmen, they were the colons who ran the Algerian economy, in addition to the 80% of pieds noirs who were working class, often of Italian, Maltese, or Spanish ancestry, like Albert Camus’ mother). And that slaughter was revenge for an FLN inspired pogrom in Philippville that left 75 European men, women, and children dead, as well as 35 Algerians deemed traitors. The victims were killed with such jaw dropping sadism that the photos, prominently displayed in pieds noirs circles, stoked French Algerian terror, rage, and helped convince them of the apocalyptic nature of the struggle.
Or should we go back eight years before the Philippville massacres to VE Day, 1945, when Algerians in North Constantine rose up to demand their own liberation, slaughtering over 100 Europeans. Once the French army arrived on the scene they began a massive campaign of executions, as the French Air Force and Navy leveled entire villages from the air and sea. The French put the Muslim death toll at 15,000, the Algerians counted three times that number. As historian Benjamin Stora remarks in his book Algeria 1830-2000, “General Duval, who was responsible for the terrible repression of 1945…had warned: ‘I have given you peace for ten years. But make no mistake. Everything must change in Algeria.’ The tragedy is that nothing did change.” Duval was only off by a year: the purely military solution kept the peace for nine years. The Algerian War would begin in 1954.
And just when you thought the context couldn’t get any bloodier–in January, 1961, nine months before the October massacre, a loose coalition of Far Right French army officers, pieds noirs businessmen, and street thugs formed the OAS (Secret Army Organization). Furious at what they considered de Gaulle’s sellout of Algerie francaise many of these men had connections with French Fascist and Rightist Catholic movements going back decades.
In October, 1961, as the FLN called a halt to armed attacks in Paris and prepared for their curfew protest march, the OAS pivoted from indiscriminately bombing and lynching Muslim civilians in Algeria to blowing up French peace activists and writers in Paris including an attempt to kill Jean Paul Sartre. They also just missed killing the President of the newly minted Fifth Republic, Charles de Gaulle, as recounted, with some poetic license in The Day of the Jackal.
But to see what Paris, 1961, has to do with the Paris of half a century later, we back away from the blood stained boulevards to see connections that reach further back in time and closer to our own:
Why were nearly 350,000 Muslim Algerians living in France in October, 1961? Why were they defined by their religion as well as their ethnicity?
According to the Algerian born historian Stora, “After the French conquest [begun in 1830], Islam, which had been solidly rooted in Algeria since the seventh century, remained the only ideological “nation” of reference for the majority of Muslim Algerians. For a long time, a whole series of religious sects, which had organized society before the arrival of the French, provided a counterweight to colonial power … Religion offered the Algerian population a means to combat the foreign colonial presence.” French law made the European colonists citizens of France, including the native Algerian Jews as of 1870, and left the indigenous Muslims as subjects.
In the 1950s the FLN, while not primarily a religious movement, used Islam as a unifying force to oppose the overwhelmingly Catholic colon population, frequently forbidding, on punishment of death or mutilation, the consumption of alcohol in areas they controlled.
Significant Algerian Muslim migration to France began during World War I in response to the French manpower shortage caused by the war. From 1914 to 1918 more than 100,000 Algerians, nearly all men, were brought to France to replace workers who were at the front. Job recruiters had no shortage of destitute Algerian farmers displaced by French colonists who were steadily seizing the more fertile lands for commercial farming. In addition, 25,000 Muslim soldiers died for France in The Great War, as well as 22,000 pieds noirs soldiers who died for La Patrie. In ways reminiscent of black U.S. soldiers returning home after World War I the 148,000 Algerian Muslim soldiers who were made it through the war were bitterly disillusioned by the poverty and French mandated discrimination back home.
The story was repeated in World War II. The post war period in France saw another manpower shortage and by October, 1961 the number of Algerian Muslims in France was at 350,000: Algerian workers brought to France to replace the French workers who had been drafted to fight in Algeria!
The Algerian immigrants, still overwhelmingly men, were initially housed in shanty towns or worker dormitories on the outskirts of urban centers. These dreary settlements morphed into the banlieues that partially surround Paris and other French cities today. Following the demented ideas of the architect Le Corbusier, who believed that humans should be housed in vertical concrete towers separated from their place of work which were in turn separated from leisure activities, food markets, and cafes, immigrant workers, and later their families when the French government allowed wives and children to join the men in the 1970s, found they had traded their unsanitary slums for neighborhoods of sterile apartment blocks—some bereft of rail service that could link them to the glittering city of cafes, museums, and tourists just kilometers beyond their walls.
In reaction to the anti-Jewish laws of Vichy, the French census no longer asks about religion, race, or ethnicity, so it’s difficult to get accurate numbers but it’s thought that today there are over 1.5 million Algerian immigrants and their French born children—tellingly described as ‘second generation immigrants’, as opposed to, well, French—living in France; they form part of the more than four million immigrants from former French North Africa. Forty percent of this number lives in the greater Paris region where the majority live with other immigrants from formerly French West Africa as well as with new arrivals from southern and eastern Europe. The overlaid maps of segregated housing, inferior schools, and lack of jobs, would be familiar to residents of any U.S. city.
The Economic Strategy department of the French government looked at national origin statistics, which the census does collect, and found that for young people of North African or African background unemployment stands at 32%, twice that of youth with French born parents. And the special, historical bitterness of Algerian-French relations endures: 19% of young people from Tunisian and Moroccan backgrounds, nations that gained their independence from France with much less bloodshed, earned university degrees, nine percentage points better than their Algerian descended peers.
“The Algerian war is a sequence of history that that French society has never come to terms with,” observed Benjamin Stora in one of the understatements of the century. There is not even agreement on the casualties: the FLN, which rules Algeria to this day, puts the total at 1.5 million dead. Officially France computed 350,000. No matter whose figures are used, Algerian Muslims accounted for at least 90% of the dead. As for the number of civilians intentionally killed it is safe to say that both sides have unchartered seas of blood on their hands.
Although France lost over 25,000 soldiers in the war, French school text books did not even call the ‘events’ of 1954-1962 a war until 1999, the first time the subject was covered at all. The legacy of censorship and shame was so ingrained that as late as 1998 copies of an Algerian newspaper printed on October 17 of that year commemorating the Paris massacre were seized at the Lyons airport.
But even in France the times they are a-changing. The last decade has seen an avalanche of books and films on the war, and in 2012, on the fiftieth anniversary of Algerian independence, the French army war museum mounted an exhibition on the war that included photos of French soldiers torturing Algerian prisoners.
That same year also saw Socialist President Francois Holland break 51 years of official silence regarding the massacre of Paris with an almost apology: “I pay homage to the victims, the republic acknowledges the facts with clarity.”
As if to prove the universal nature of William Faulkner’s observation that in the American South, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past” the French Center Right pounced: “This declaration is dangerous for the cohesion of our country”, warned Christian Jacob of Nicolas Sarkozy’s Union For a Popular Movement (recently renamed the Republican Party.) “Even if there is no question of denying these events of 17 October 1961 or forgetting the victims, it’s intolerable to call the republican police, and along with them the whole republic, into question.” Marine Le Pen, the leader of the Far Right National Front favored sarcasm, wondering if an apology for the Saint Bartholomew Day massacres (which happened in 1572) was coming next. Her disgust is ancestral: her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the National Front, once boasted, and now denies, that he tortured prisoners when he was a paratrooper serving in Algeria.
Yet the attacks of November 13 may have strengthened the Right whose leaders continue to insist that stirring up France’s colonial past can only lead to trouble.
While it’s true that over 1,500 French nationals have left the country to join the Islamic State—the most in Europe, the links between terrorism and Islam, or poverty, or ‘second generation immigrants’, or enduring rage over the denial of France’s tortured colonial history, are anything but clear cut.
One of the November 13 attackers had Algerian ancestry but so did at least one victim–an actual Algerian who was a violinist studying at the Sorbonne. The two brothers who machine gunned the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were born in France to Algerian parents (actually they grew up in orphanages following their mother’s suicide, leaving the relevant weight of their ancestry even more difficult to measure), but so was Ahmed Merabet, the Paris police officer who was killed by the brothers when he tried to stop them.
For anyone interested in getting an idea of just how resistant reality can be to sweeping generalizations in today’s France a good place to start is George Packer’s exploration of the Paris banlieues for the New Yorker, entitled The Other France.
The residents of the land of Descartes and Sartre are renowned for loving grand theories almost as much as wine. But if viewed from the bottom of French society circa 2015, the Republic’s color blind and militantly secular stance, springing from the admirably rational principles of 1789, can look like a crystalline wall—cold, beautiful, and impassible; or simply a classically French strategy to keep their growing Muslim minority at arm’s length.
If anyone knew La France at her best and worst it was Algerian writer Mouloud Feraoun. The son of poor Berber Muslim parents from the Kabylia region of Algeria, he won a scholarship to an elite French university in Algeria and stayed in his native land to become a teacher. A man who wrote in French while supporting independence for his homeland, Feraoun kept a journal throughout the French-Algerian War, a work which stands today as among the most eloquent and devastating accounts of Civil War ever written. With his stubborn humanism and decency Feraoun represented what the Islamic State condemns as “the grey zone of coexistence”, hated today by the Islamists who coined the term, and hated in French Algeria by extremists on both sides.
On March 15, 1962, three days before the agreement that would end the French-Algerian War commandos from the OAS seized six prominent teachers, three Algerian and three French, men who hoped to have a hand in building a democratic, multi ethnic Algeria, and murdered them. Mouloud Feraoun was among the victims.
Although the following journal entry is from the winter of 1955, Feraoun’s terrifying prophesy remains in full force; a prophesy he died resisting, now a challenge from the grave:
What should we have done to get along with each other? First of all, get to know one another. But we have not done this. Just ask a Kabyle woman for her definition of a Frenchman. She will answer that he is a nonbeliever, a man who is often handsome, and strong but heartless. He might be intelligent, but he gets this, like his power, from the devil. What does she expect from a Frenchman? Nothing good; neither his justice, which cuts like a knife, nor his charity, which is overbearing and never without insults. How does a European define a native? A common laborer, a maid. A bizarre creature with ridiculous customs, peculiar dress, and an impossible language. A more or less dirty, tattered, and unpleasant character. At any rate, a person on the fringe, quite alone, and let us leave him where he is. It is almost childish to revert to these clichés so quickly. But this is the source of the injustice, and it is useless to look elsewhere. We have been co-existing for a century without the slightest curiosity. The only thing left to do is to harvest this mutual indifference that is the opposite of love.
Nat Krieger works for San Diego Unified where, on good days, he fixes computers. Nights spent wandering though 10th Century Andalusia resulted in a recently completed work of historical fiction.