Tuesday, October 18, 2011
"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.