Tuesday, October 18, 2011

In France it's complicated

"They killed our cook, threw her body down the well and stuck her head on the fence post." This was uttered by my friends mother years ago as we sat at the wooden table over a long lunch with her family in the French countryside. "The Algerians took our house, my father's factory. We escaped." My friend's mother was a Pied Noir, a French national who lived in Algeria all her life until the Algerian Revolution. Her story never left her - she loved Algeria where she'd been born but hated the FLN the rebel nationalists. And in France when you talk about Algeria it's complicated.
Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the Algerian Massacre when Paris police ignored the values of liberté, egalité, fraternité and slaughtered up to 200 peaceful protesters in cold blood around iconic national monuments, including the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame Cathedral. On the evening of 17 October 1961, at the height of the Franco-Algerian war, tens of thousands of Algerian protesters, including women and children, from around Paris gathered at various landmarks to demonstrate against what they considered a "racist and discriminatory" curfew imposed against them.
The mobilisation had been organised by the Paris wing of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), an organisation that was fighting for Algeria's independence from France and had been accused of carrying out attacks on Paris police that left a dozen dead.It was intended to be a peaceful demonstration, but Maurice Papon, the Paris police chief, ordered his officers to stamp out the protests. As the Algerians gathered, the police acted swiftly and brutally, firing on protesters and arresting an estimated 11,500 who were herded on to buses and taken to makeshift detention centres where many claimed they were beaten and held for days without food. Claims that officers had beaten protesters and dumped them into the Seine appeared to be confirmed when bodies were washed up on the banks of the river.

Papon was awarded the Légion d'Honneur by President Charles de Gaulle the same year as the Algerian killings, and went on to hold a number of senior official posts.In 1981 details emerged of his part in the deportation between 1942 and 1944 of 1,690 Jews from Bordeaux, where he was secretary of police, , but it was not until 1998 that he was convicted of crimes against humanity and stripped of his decorations and titles.
The Algerian war, which started in 1954, ended in Algeria's independence from France in 1962.
The most memorable – and vicious – atrocities saw policemen herding panicking crowds on to Paris's bridges, where many were tossed into the Seine. Normally a romantic symbol of the most popular tourist city in the world, the river became a watery morgue for scores of victims, whose lifeless bodies were washing up for weeks afterwards.
Others died in police stations, or in nearby woods, where their mutilated bodies testified to truncheon and rifle-butt injuries. The officers had been incensed by an illegal protest by 30,000 men, women and children organised by the National Liberation Front (FLN) – the main Algerian nationalist group in their country's war of independence with France.
Fifty years will seem like a long time to many of the young French Algerians who mark the anniversary today, but in many ways it seems very recent. Maurice Papon, the Paris police chief who instigated the killings, only died four years ago, aged 96; and some of his unrepentant and unpunished henchmen still remain at large.
Like Papon, many of the killers had been Nazi collaborators who learned their crowd control methods from the Gestapo. They were experts at disinformation too: the official death toll after Papon's self-proclaimed "Battle of Paris" was initially three, before being revised to a vague "several dozen" almost 40 years later.No judicial inquiry ever took place, with many French still blaming Algerian in-fighting and terrorist attacks for the deaths. Papon was finally brought to justice for crimes against humanity – but only for those he committed during the second world war. President Charles de Gaulle, and then successive governments, ensured he was never indicted for what he did to the French Algerians of Paris.

Most now live in the blighted housing estates which dot the outskirts of the capital. These banlieues grew out of the immigrant worker shanty towns which became recruiting grounds for the FLN in the 50s and 60s. Police felt they could control "insurgents" better on the estates, and they are still overflowing with young people from north Africa.As during the nationalist war, French Algerians are still encouraged to stay out of tourist Paris. Curfews are regularly imposed on the estates, with armoured vehicles filled with paramilitaries moving in during disturbances. When particularly heavy rioting broke out in 2005, the then interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, imposed a state of emergency. Like the curfews, it was based on Algerian war legislation from 1955.
Up to 40% of young French Algerians from the estates are currently unemployed. Without money or prospects, some have turned to crime, helping to swell a prison population estimated to be up to 70% Muslim. Many resemble the angst-ridden, alienated young Algerians who took to the streets in 1961. They are the grand-children of these victims
Yesterday François Hollande, the Socialist Presidential candidate remembered and threw a rose in the Seine. I don't know what my friend's mother was remembering.
Cara- Tuesday


  1. Wow, I didn't know about this. I wonder how a Vichy police official got a post as chief of Paris police, not to mention honors bestowed by de Gaulle? Historical blindness, perhaps.

  2. Fortunately I was in Spain on the 17th October. The events were well hidden for years but we all knew what had happened if we had Maghrbien or Pied Noir friends. There were many new pictures in LeMonde yeasterday. http://www.lemonde.fr/societe/infographe/2011/10/17/les-photos-inedites-du-17-octobre-1961_1586457_3224.html

  3. I'm a little in shock. Having gone to the best schools in New York, I knew nothing of this, just as the teens today know very little about Vietnam. I am being sarcastic because there is so much ugliness in the world, and we would like to pretend it's only them, the other, never us. Tim's blog the other day was filled with the beauty and creativity of nature and humanity. With the Occupy movement, there are some stirrings against the pure greed, and exploitation that have taken over our world. This is the subject of philosophy, I suppose, and I sound so naive, but I truly mourn that there is so much cruelty in the world, some of it masquerading as good. There is much beauty as well. I suppose the fact that we can share the outrage makes for community. That helps.

  4. I don't know how else to say this: something about how the French view things has always troubled me. Then again, I just watched the Western Republican Presidential Debate and am wishing there were elephant fries I could boycott.

  5. Thank you for sharing the story about French history I was unaware off. As someone interested in history, I have yet to find one country that does not have a story such as this buried in its past. Must be one of those human things.

  6. Those in power all over the world have a nasty way of hiding or distorting the horrible things they do. France is but one example. Stan

  7. Michael, mob mentality robs humans of their humanity, the victims become "other" and other is always the enemy. Common ground is ignored because to acknowledge that there is something in "common" requires stepping back and examining actions. As someone interested in history, as am I, you know that history is written by the winners; if the losing side gets the opportunity to tell its story, it is viewed as revisionist.

    Jeff, how is it that the Republicans can find no one better than the sorry lot debating last night? In case anyone wonders if I am biased, I am. I know Mitt Romney, or at least the character he was playing when he was governor of Massachusetts, and he can be found by the trail of slime he leaves as he wanders from this value to that value while failing to miss all values. The man is incapable of being sincere, especially about the part of him that responded to the better angels of his nature to take care of those in need.

  8. My thinking on the debate last night was basically without regard to political beliefs.

    Assuming that a large mass of Americans are (pick your adverb) dissatisfied with President Obama, isn't it tragic for our country that at this very preliminary stage, all the opposition party has to offer is that selection?

    Perhaps "we the people" are as gullible, disinterested, and out of touch as our politicians take us to be.

  9. Cara,
    It's very good that you wrote this post. This history may be known to the French, although maybe not.
    I'm just finding out that many French people don't even know about what Petain's collaborationist government did to the Jews, and the Resistance members and others during WWII.
    It's not well-known to people in the U.S., many of whom also may not know about the Petain atrocities.
    I knew about the racism towards Algerians in France, didn't know about the murders. And, of course, I know about some of the events in Algeria, the brutality carried out by the French -- largely because I saw "Battle of Algiers" decades ago which educated me on this.
    But I didn't know that Papon, the same rotten fascist who had Jews killed, also orchestrated the killings of the Algerians.
    I also know that the Algerians are oppressed now in France, didn't realize unemployment is so high nor that paramilitaries patrol their neighborhoods.
    And, of course, Sarkozy is awful on these issues.
    Just what he did in terms of further ostracizing the Roma is outrageous. They also were persecuted by the Nazis during WWII, who labeled them the same way they did the Jews.
    I assume there are good people in France trying to stop this or do something about it, although with the economic crisis, Marine le Pen and her friends are lashing out at immigrants, and I'm sure Algerian people are taking heat from them.
    Good to get this out. Maybe you could post this elsewhere to inform more people.

  10. Cara, I never knew of this shameful episode. Thanks for enlightening me.

  11. Cara, I've recently learned about another odd off-shoot of the Franco-Algerian war: that the OAS leaders, who for some reason had received prison sentences rather than being executed after trying to overthrow De Gaulle, were amnestied by De Gaulle when France was in turmoil in 1968. It's complicated in France, all right.

    As for the rest of you readers, Didier Daeninckx's novel Murder in Memoriam strings out a thread that connects the 1961 massacre and France's Vichy past.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"