Paris massacre: 60 years on, France must face its colonial past

Melissa Chemam

Melissa Chemam

“The most violent contemporary state repression ever applied to a street protest in Western Europe.” This is how British historians Jim House and Neil MacMaster described the massacre of Algerians protesting peacefully in Paris on October 17, 1961, during the period now known as the Algerian war.

The protesters – 30,000 pro-independence Algerians – were demonstrating against a curfew that had been imposed on “Algerian Muslim workers”, “French Muslims” and “French Muslims of Algeria”. According to historian Jean-Luc Einaudi, the authorities intended not only to stop the demonstration but to kill the protesters; police officers even threw some of the demonstrators alive into the River Seine.

For years, the official death toll of the 1961 massacre was only three. Nowadays, historians agree that at least 48 people were killed by French police on that night, although many believe the death toll was well over 100.

In France, where I was born to Algerian parents a few decades later, the Algerian war was for a long time designated with the understatement “les événements” or “the events of Algeria”. It was, however, one of the most important decolonisation wars; a complex conflict characterised by guerrilla warfare and the use of torture by the French authorities that lasted almost eight years and resulted in between 1 million and 1.5 million deaths.

My entire family was part of the Algerian resistance to French colonialism. My paternal grandfather was a political freedom fighter in northern Algeria during the 1930s. My father was nine years old when he was killed, but he never mentioned it in front of me and I only learned of this family trauma from my mother when I was a teenager.

When my father was about 14, his mother sent him to Paris to find a job and potentially a better future. I know little of his early years in Paris other than that he struggled with poverty and only decided to have children decades later when he secured a better-paid job.

On November 1, 1954, the “Toussaint Rouge” (“Bloody All-Saints’ Day”) occurred in Algeria, with a series of attacks launched by Algerian fighters from the newly formed Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) against the European settlers. It marked a change in tactics from campaigning for independence to direct action, and symbolised the start of the Algerian war.

My father’s brothers and cousins all joined the movement in Algeria, while my father, then 20 years old, helped from France by sending money and documents. My maternal grandfather also supported the FLN from France, while working in a Parisian café to support his family.

In response to the FLN’s attacks, the French government didn’t try to discuss or appease the tensions; it sent the army to protect the “indivisible Republic”.

Most of modern-day Algeria then belonged not only to the French Empire in Africa but to France itself, as proper départements or counties and with Paris as its capital. Prime Minister Pierre Mendès France had only a few months earlier completed the liquidation of France’s empire in Indochina, but he declared in the National Assembly: “The Algerian departments are part of the French Republic. They have been French for a long time, and they are irrevocably French. … Between them and metropolitan France there can be no conceivable secession.” Previous French governments had already ordered the massacres of Muslim Indigenous protesters in Algeria in Sétif in 1945, and Mendès’s France was ready to do it again.

For nearly eight years, a civil war was fought, mostly on Algerian soil. But the October 1961 Paris massacre highlights how the battle also took place in France.

Second-class citizens

At the time of the 1961 massacre, the French used the term “Algerians” to refer to French settlers in Algeria, who were also known as “pieds noirs” (“black feet”) for they were the only ones who wore black leather shoes in the French colony at the time.

It was a time when discrimination ran high, in the form of racism against native Algerians, including limited access to political representation and to the job market.

In Algiers, there was a local “Assemblée” to represent the “Algerians”/pieds noirs, where the one million French and European colonisers were represented by two-thirds of parliamentary seats. The other nine million Indigenous people – a mix of diverse native Berber ethnicities and Arabs, who settled in Algeria from the 10th to 12th century – voted to elect the remaining third of the Assembly.

Like my father, many of these native Algerians moved to France from the 1940s onwards to find work while, in their homeland, industry was underdeveloped and agriculture and land mostly controlled by French owners.

Several decades later, Algerians living in France – both bi-nationals and second-generation immigrants – feel that we do not exist in this country where right-wing rhetoric and Islamophobia are dominant and those with multiple heritage are required to renounce their other culture in order to be considered French.

Just as in the old colonial Algerian assembly that was in place until 1962, France’s native Algerians and Muslim population are treated as second-class citizens.

An impossible reconciliation?

When I was born in 1980 – the first of my family born in France – racism against North Africans was still widespread. My father avoided speaking Kabyle in public (and even at home) and my mother told me how, when we had moved to the Parisian suburbs in 1981, our neighbours had tried to dissuade the landlord from letting us live in the building. Despite the March for Equality and Against Racism – or “Marche des Beurs” as it was known in the French media, using a slang term for Arab often applied to those whose parents or grandparents were born in North Africa – in 1983, conditions never really improved and the French authorities mostly avoided discussing the Algerian war and its legacy.

While campaigning for office in 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron promised to improve Algerian-French relations. Over the past 12 months, however, he has inflamed tensions, so much so that on October 2, Algerian authorities recalled their ambassador from Paris.

The row started when Macron accused Algerian authorities of having lived on a “memorial ransom” fostered by a “military-political system”, which he claimed used anger against the former colonial power to control its population.

Macron again provoked controversy at a public event for the grandchildren of combatants in the war earlier this month when he stated that Algeria was never a country prior to French colonisation and that the Ottoman Empire was also a “coloniser” but was not blamed as much as France.

On Saturday, a day before the 60th anniversary of the Paris massacre, he finally denounced the killings as “inexcusable” crimes but did not apologise for the massacre.


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