The October 17, 1961, in the middle of the Algerian war and at the call of the FLN, thousands of demonstrators marched without violence in a Paris under tension. The reaction of the police, led by a certain Maurice Papon, is very violent: the demonstrators are pursued and beaten, thrown into the Seine or arrested. The record - a major subject of controversy - is very heavy. However, the event, like Setif (May 8, 1945), despite its magnitude and violence, remains fifty years later still little known to the public. In 2012, President François Hollande acknowledged the State's responsibility for this massacre.
The context in October 1961
The year 1961 was particularly turbulent with, among others, the creation of the OAS (February), the putsch of the generals in Algiers (April) and the divisions within the Algerian nationalist movement, which led to the departure of Ferhat Abbas ( August).
Despite the negotiations started between De Gaulle and the GPRA, tensions are very high: the OAS claims the attacks, including in the metropolis, and the FLN attacks the French police (around thirty dead since the start of the 'year 1961). This is the pretext taken by the Paris prefecture, headed by Maurice Papon, to impose a curfew on "French Muslims in Algeria" (and more broadly on immigrants). The FLN then called for a boycott of this curfew by demonstrating, in a non-violent way, on October 17, 1961.
The demonstration of October 17, 1961 turns into a massacre
Their number is estimated at at least twenty thousand. While the weight of the FLN is undeniable, sometimes even threatening, the demonstrators are mostly people who are tired of the situation and the context. Many come from the slums of the Parisian suburbs and suffer, in addition to their social situation, the collateral damage of the war and of a repression against the FLN which turns into blind ratonnades. Other demonstrators will also come from further afield and try to be heard.
The police were in place on the afternoon of this day of October 17. Demonstrators arriving from Parisian stations are already expected and many of them turned back or arrested. The others, around twenty or thirty thousand, therefore, manage to reach the various places of the demonstration in Paris, on the Grands Boulevards, at Etoile and on Saint-Michel and Saint-Germain.
The march really starts from 8 p.m., when the curfew is supposed to start. There are young men, but also older ones, as well as women and children. The first arrests begin, but the processions continue. The demonstrators chant slogans like "Algerian Algeria", "FLN in power" and "The racists at the post".
The situation gets tense around 9:30 p.m. Shots ring out, the police charge at the Opera, then near the Rex cinema; arrests are on the rise, with apprehended protesters being taken to identification centers (where violence continues). Everything accelerated shortly before 10 p.m., and violence exploded in all parts of the demonstration, including near Nanterre. It’s confusion in the middle of the night. The streets emptied of passers-by are the scene of pursuits between the police and demonstrators, some of whom fled to the Seine to escape arrest. Others are deliberately swayed. We find bodies on the pavement at the Pont de Neuilly, at the Etoile, at the Opera, on the boulevards, ...
Everything is in order around midnight. More than ten thousand demonstrators were arrested! More protests are planned for the following days, but the authorities intend to regain control of the events. Raids began the next day, in particular in Nanterre, some of which led to evictions ...
The results of October 17, 1961
While the number of arrests is not the subject of particular debate, the number of deaths continues to be. The most reliable estimates (Benjamin Stora for example) speak of at least two hundred deaths. The lowest estimates suggest several dozen deaths, which is already huge, even in this very tense context.
However, the other highlight is the near-omerta that sets in over the following days, despite the scale of the event. Admittedly, the press present despite the censorship issues very critical articles, but that is not enough. It is above all politically that we decide to erase this October 17, and within the police force despite an attempt by "republican police" to report the violence of the night. Nobody is worried, and of course first and foremost Maurice Papon. We go so far as to accuse FLN commandos of being responsible for the deaths (previously denied deaths). A commission of inquiry is buried at the end of the year. The bloody events in Charonne in February 1962 left a more profound mark on the left struggling with the OAS than on October 17. Then it is political pragmatism (some would say cynicism) that takes over, including on the side of the FLN. You have to know how to get past some bad memories to get back to the negotiating table.
October 17, 1961 remains a matter of debate to this day, as shown by the controversies that appear on the occasion of the commemoration of fifty years of what must be called a state massacre.
- B. Stora, History of the Algerian War (1954-1962), The Discovery, 2004.
- Mr. Levine, The October ratonnades. A collective murder in Paris in 1961, Ramsay, 1985.
- J-P. Brunet, Police against FLN. The October 1961 drama, Flammarion, 1999.
- J-L. Einaudi, The Battle of Paris: October 17, 1961, Threshold, 1991.
- J-L. Einaudi, October 1961. A massacre in Paris, Fayard, 2001.