On 17 October 1961, French Police Murdered Dozens of Pro-independence Algerians
Sixty years ago today [17 October 1961], the Paris police force brutally attacked a peaceful demonstration by Algerians in the French capital. While we still do not have exact figures, it seems likely that the police killed at least two hundred demonstrators.
The Algerian FLN (Front de libération nationale, National Liberation Front) had been waging a bitter struggle for independence since 1954. The final French withdrawal from Algeria came just a few months after the demonstration, which the FLN had called in opposition to a curfew imposed on Algerians living in Paris. The head of the Paris police, Maurice Papon, had openly encouraged a murderous response by his officers.
The French authorities largely hushed up the massacre. When the journalist Paulette Péju wrote a short book about it, police seized the copies. Péju’s work was not available to the public until 2000. In 1991, the historian Jean-Luc Einaudi published a book about the killings titled La Bataille de Paris: 17 octobre 1961.
The FLN received active support from a minority of the French population. This included workers in the huge Renault car factory at Billancourt, near Paris. The following eyewitness account of the massacre comes from Henri and Clara Benoits, two left-wing activists who the FLN had asked to act as observers that day because of their solidarity with the Algerian movement. This extract is taken from their joint autobiography L’Algérie au cœur [“Algeria in Our Hearts”] (Paris: Éditions Syllepse, 2014).
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The French Federation of the FLN organized this demonstration to protest the imposition of the curfew, enforced by the chief of police, forbidding Algerians — “French Muslims” as they were called at the time — to go out between 8:30 PM and 5:30 AM. This ban was intended to obstruct the organization of the FLN and the movement of its activists.
Faced with the continuation of the war in Algeria and the collapse of attempts at negotiation under pressure from elements within the state machine who wanted to continue the war to the bitter end, the French Federation of the FLN decided to broaden the struggle in solidarity with the one being fought in Algeria, and above all to demonstrate its representative nature. This decision to demonstrate peacefully was unanimous, but the federation could not have imagined the degree of cruelty of the repression, nor its extent.
The French Federation therefore called for a peaceful, disciplined demonstration; no one was to carry the smallest pin or knife in their pockets. Mohammedi Saddok, the coordinator, who was in close contact with us, knew how severe previous confrontations had been, and Omar Boudaoud, “boss” of the French Federation, proposed the presence of French “observers,” who would not be participants but witnesses.
Our job was to be present at the demonstration and to give a faithful account of how it developed. And not to intervene, whatever might happen.
Everything is related in the testimony we drew up for Jean-Luc Einaudi at the time of the lawsuit Maurice Papon brought against him in 1998, more than thirty years after the events. This testimony dealt with the progress of the demonstration between the Opera and the Le Rex cinema, near the Bonne‑Nouvelle underground station.
Eyewitnesses to 17 October
Both working at Renault and having ties of friendship with Algerians who were trade unionists like ourselves, we were approached to act as witness-observers of the demonstration that the FLN was planning to organize on 17 October 1961.
Permission had not been granted for this demonstration, but our friends explained to us that the aim was on the one hand to express opposition to the curfew imposed exclusively on “Algerian Muslim French,” and on the other to show that the immigrant Algerian population freely gave massive support to the cause of independence demanded by the FLN. This aim was disputed by a section of French public opinion that claimed that the FLN’s support was due entirely to the “terror” imposed on the Algerian population.
For us at Renault-Billancourt, which probably had the biggest concentration of Algerians in France, this “free and massive” support was obvious. But it still had to be proved to the mass of French citizens. Since the FLN was not permitted any legal means of expression, it was only on the streets that it could make its position known.
In these conditions we were asked to meet at 7 PM at the Place de l’Opéra. At the exit from the underground, those of the passengers who could be identified by their facial features were led off to buses parked opposite the underground entrance. This operation developed peacefully, with none of the Algerians putting up any resistance.
The number of vehicles was limited, and a flood of Algerians was coming from all directions, so a gathering formed on the corner of the Boulevard des Capucines. Toward 8 PM, the procession of demonstrators moved off in the direction of Richelieu-Drouot. It occupied the roadway for a length of 200 to 300 meters, with impressive calm. We could even see girls dressed in colors suggesting the Algerian flag. It had gone dark. We stood on the pavement close to the back of the demonstration.
Behind us, in the distance, perhaps 200 or 300 meters away, where the roadway was clear, we caught sight of a black mass of police buses. The march continued, went past Richelieu-Drouot, and along the main boulevards, and then stopped for a while on a level with the Bonne-Nouvelle underground station, at least for those of us who were situated at the back of the demonstration. We didn’t know why, because in the dim light we could not see the front of the march.
At this moment, there were some loud explosions. To us they didn’t seem to be coming from behind, but rather from the front of the demonstration. Suddenly there was enormous confusion, with a great tumult and shouting, some of the demonstrators turning around toward the back of the march and the entrances to the underground. They all scattered in whatever way possible, into carriage entrances and the surrounding streets.
Close to us, a man was slumped on the pavement, his face covered in blood. Obviously, we couldn’t abandon him, and assisted by two of his compatriots, we managed to take refuge in the underground. We took the first train and got off a couple of stations further on. There we met a friend from Billancourt who had been asked to come for the same reasons as ourselves, but who was located near the Place de la République.
He had gone with a march proceeding in the opposite direction to ours. “Things are going badly,” he told us. The police or the CRS [Compagnies républicaines de sécurité, Republican Security Corps, the French riot police], nobody knew which, had opened fire. He had seen bodies on the ground. This was Georges Lepage, who lived in Ivry-sur-Seine. We climbed into his car, which was parked close by, and did a tour of the area.
Coming up by the Boulevard Haussmann and veering off toward the Opera, we came to the back of a theater where there were premises belonging to the police. A police bus was unloading its cargo of demonstrators. They were about twenty meters from the entrances to the police station.
For this distance, between two rows of policemen, the demonstrators made their way, trying to protect their heads with their hands. They were methodically and violently attacked with baton blows by these “police,” who were not responding to any threat or to the slightest attack. They were hitting systematically, quite unconstrained, perhaps feeling they were protected by their hierarchy, or else because they had orders.
Returning to our home, at that time in the Rue Olivier-de-Serres, we observed numerous buses parked around the Palais des Sports in the Boulevard Lefebvre. It was well after midnight and there was total silence. We assumed it was where the people who had been arrested were being assembled. We could not imagine the truth of the situation. It was only later that we learned of the horrors that had taken place there.
We are still waiting for some expression of “regret” from the person who encouraged and authorized these atrocities. Papon!
Minimizing the Massacre
Some distorted information appeared in the press the following day, in Franc-Tireur and France-Soir, minimizing the number of victims. At the Billancourt factory that day, about a hundred Algerians were absent, but we were not aware of any activists being victims of police abuse. The FLN had doubtless decided not to expose its cadres, except for the preparation of the demonstration.
French readers could not conceive of the extent of the repression. We ourselves didn’t realize the extent of the massacre.
Omar Oulhadj, an official of the AGTA [General Association of Algerian Workers, organized by the FLN], made some revelations about the atrocities committed on October 17 the following week, writing anonymously in the magazine L’Express. But French readers could not conceive of the extent of the repression. We ourselves didn’t realize the extent of the massacre, although we had been witnesses to the brutality — the violent clubbing, in the Place de l’Opéra, of Algerians getting out of police vans with their hands on their heads.
During the days that followed, an issue of Témoignage et Documents presented the facts. It is well-known that Claude Bourdet, joint editor of France Observateur and a member of the Paris municipal council for the PSU [Parti Socialiste Unifié, United Socialist Party], spoke out courageously. The next day, a call for a demonstration outside the town hall at Billancourt didn’t get the necessary support.
I took part in the demonstration organized by the PSU on November 1 at the Place de Clichy in Paris. There were a few hundred participants at this location, which had not been announced publicly.
In October 1991, during a symposium at the Sorbonne, Omar Boudaoud, a leader of the FLN Federation who in 1961 was living in Brussels, described how he had been disappointed by the behavior of the French Communist Party. He added that after October 17, the Communist Party had resumed contact with the FLN.
A delegation was sent to Brussels with the aim of organizing a joint demonstration, in particular by French and Algerian women. In fact, from October 18 onward, women had been taking steps to find their missing husbands. A proposal for joint action was rejected by the French Federation of the FLN, thus refusing to allow the Communist Party to evade responsibility for its previous attitude.
However, throughout the whole Algerian war, including the period after October 17, the CGT [Confédération Générale du Travail, General Confederation of Labor, a Communist-led union federation] had a more open attitude. It had to take account of the pressure from Algerian members of the FLN within the union, and also from the World Federation of Trade Unions, where sections that had emerged from decolonization carried a certain weight. The CGT’s statements and activity were much less centered on the theme of the “national interest” than those of the Communist Party.
Thirty years later, at the request of the leadership of the CGT’s metalworkers’ federation, which was looking for witnesses, an Algerian from the trade union office at Renault pointed out that we had been present at the demonstration. Our testimony was republished in 1991 in the newspaper of the metalworkers’ federation for immigrant workers.
A Fascist Threat
At that time, the Secret Army Organization (Organisation Armée Secrète, OAS), which had been formed in February 1961, was waging total war, especially in the form of the generals’ putsch in April 1961. The aim was to drain Algeria of blood, to create conditions in which independence would have been unlivable, to destroy and to terrorize public opinion which was in the process of being swayed.
The OAS tried to kill Charles de Gaulle at Petit Clamart in August 1962 and organized numerous violent attacks. It was a permanent threat. It is important to remember that at this time, the French Communist Party was speculating about the dangers of France “becoming fascist,” and it made contacts with the FLN to coordinate action against the danger represented by the OAS.
In France, the Communist slogan “Peace in Algeria” gradually turned into “Fight Against OAS Terrorism” with an apparent appeal to national unity. A major work stoppage after a violent attack by the OAS at Billancourt brought together a significant number of office workers, technicians, and managers, alongside the manual workers, the majority of whom supported the action. The traditional left was joined by Gaullists and all those who were fundamentally hostile to OAS terrorism, since the violent attacks were a challenge to the whole of public opinion.
This was the context for the Charonne demonstration of 8 February 1962.1 This demonstration against OAS outrages, called by the Communist Party and other organizations and trade unions, was banned. It ended up with a massacre at the Charonne underground station; there were many injured and nine dead, eight of whom were Communists. Their funeral drew an enormous crowd on the streets of Paris and led to major stoppages of work in the factories. This was notably the case at Renault, where our calls for strike action, already made on the following morning, got a good response.
First published in Jacobin on 17 October 2021
- 1The Charonne massacre attracted far more public attention than the killings of 17 October 1961. Several hundred thousand people attended the funerals of the victims. Algeria became an independent state on 5 July 1962. The police commander Maurice Papon had to resign from his post in 1967 after a scandal provoked by the disappearance of Mehdi Ben Barka, a left-wing Moroccan politician, in which French police officers were involved. But he went on to serve as head of the company Sud Aviation, which manufactured the Concorde airliner, and as a Gaullist member of the National Assembly. Papon finally went on trial in 1997 after journalists exposed his role in the deportation of French Jews under the Nazi occupation of France. He received a ten-year prison sentence but only served three and died in 2007.