Algeria-France: Shot and drowned Oct. 17, 1961
Fifty years ago, on 17 October, 1961, Algerians decided to march peacefully in the streets of Paris. But police repression of the peaceful protest was fierce, turning it into a racist-attack. Thousands were injured, and hundreds died or went missing. This is the story of a state crime that remains buried in the recesses of official records.
Paris, October 17, 1961. Between 20,000 and 30,000 Algerians, men, women and children, gathered in several places of Paris under pouring rain. Dressed in their Sunday best, they began their march on Grands Boulevards, Champs Elysees, the Latin Quarter and nearby pont de Neuilly.
Heeding a call from the Front de liberation national (FLN), an Algerian independence movement, all and sundry intended to protest against a curfew imposed on “French Muslims from Algeria” (FMA) and all north Africans living in Paris and its suburbs that had been imposed by the prefecture of police a few weeks earlier on 5 October.
At the helm of the institution was an infamous name: Maurice Papon. This high-ranking French official was a zealot of the Vichy regime and an active in the deportation of Jews during the German occupation of France between 1942 and 1944.
But while Papon was convicted of complicity in crimes against humanity in 1998, his responsibility in that other tragedy – a fierce and bloody repression suffered by unarmed demonstrators on 17 October 1961 – has been ignored, and stays buried in the hidden recesses of state memory.
That evening, police, gendarmes, and riot police were quickly deployed to stop the march. Batons and rifle butts cracked bones indiscriminately, whilst law enforcement forces shot without warning and raided everything in its path. Approximately 12,000 Algerians were arrested.
Buses from the city’s public transport network, the RATP, were requisitioned to carry the demonstrators to stadia, gymnasiums, and the prefecture’s courtyard, where they were tortured at will.
Dozens were drowned after being thrown into the Seine river from the Neuilly, Saint Michel, Austerlitz, Argenteuil or Asnieres bridges. For weeks on end, the Seine river spewed corpses of victims.
The practice of ‘drowning by bullets’, concocted by Papon, then chief of staff to the Commissioner of Police, was not a novelty in those days. “Drowning by bullets” is also the title of a 1992 documentary about the massacre broadcast by the BBC that was awarded with the prestigious Golden FIPA.
A press release from the police headquarters indicated that there had been two deaths. Although the final death toll still remains unknown, research by historians, including the tireless and tenacious Jean-Luc Einaudi, puts the number of people killed at between 200 and 300.
Whilst more light has been thrown on the issue within civil society circles, the French government has never acknowledged its responsibility in the tragedy, which has been labelled as a ‘state crime’ by many researchers.
Three days before the 50th anniversary, the Paris prefecture of police was yet to issue permission for a march in honour of the events of 17 October 1961.