The 17th October 1961
The 17 October 1961 is the date of a set of demonstrations of Algerians in Paris, against the imposition of a curfew. Police reaction was extremely violent, many Algerians were killed and injured, 14,000 were arrested and taken to internment centres where more deaths and injuries occurred. The state news next morning only made mention of ‘3 deaths’; there is no official tally of deaths or acknowledgment of responsibility to this day.
At the time, De Gaulle had already conceded that Algeria should have autonomy; on 20 May 1961 negotiations had opened in the town of Evian between the French government and the FLN (National Liberation Front). The representatives of the FLN were given protection against possible attacks by the OAS (Organisation de l’Armée Secrète) who opposed Algerian independence. In August, De Gaulle agreed that the Sahara should belong to Algeria, and that paved the way for the negotiations to proceed. Why then this massacre of unarmed Algerians demonstrating peacefully in Paris?
There was strong opposition to granting independence to Algeria or giving up ‘French Algeria’ as it was called. It wasn’t just the OAS that fought against the independence of Algeria, members of the government also shared that position, all the way up to the Prime Minister, Michel Debré. Debré at the time no longer had responsibility for the Algerian question, but he was in charge of law and order in France.
Debré was so opposed to De Gaulle’s position on Algerian independence he presented his resignation, which was not accepted. Debré then demanded the replacement of the minister of the interior, an ex-collaborator of Pierre Mendès-France, who disapproved the violent methods of the prefect of police, by another man who shared Debré’s hostility to Algerian independence.
A book published 2017 throws light on the question. It is Marie-Odile Terrenoire’s “Voyage intime au milieu de mémoires à vif. Le 17 octobre 1961” [Personal Journey through burning memories: The 17 October 1961] and it contains the notes written by one of De Gaulle’s ministers who supported Algerian independence, Louis Terrenoire, published by his daughter. The notes were written by Terrenoire during cabinet meetings (he was minister of information); diary extracts are also included.
During WW2 Terrenoire engaged in clandestine operations from 1940, was secretary of the National Council of the Resistance, was arrested by the Gestapo, tortured and deported near Dachau. There he met Edmond Michelet, a Christian like him.
Edmond Michelet was a Resistant, arrested and deported in 1943. He became minister of Justice in 1959; he improved the prison conditions of FLN prisoners, stopped executions and let FLN prisoners organise life in camps and prisons. Debré accused him of protecting writers who had denounced torture and summary executions practised in Algeria. Debré had Michelet replaced by someone more in tune with his own ideas. From 23 August 1961, when Michelet went, extra judiciary repression together with increased censorship became the order of the day. Debré also wanted Terrenoire removed, but De Gaulle kept him as his personal spokesman and minister delegated to the Prime Minister.
With the removal of Michelet, the prefect of police, Maurice Papon, was able to organise auxiliary police forces which made night raids in the shanty towns of the suburbs, demolishing homes and arresting residents, who were imprisoned or herded in internment centres, some of which had been used to detain Jews during the occupation; other paramilitary groups machine-gunned cafes and hotels frequented by Algerians; these attacks were described in the press including Le Monde and the radio as ‘FLN attacks’. On the 5th October a night curfew was imposed on the Algerian population. This curfew was illegal since Algerians at the time had French nationality. It was implemented by threat of violence. The leadership of the French FLN reacted by organising a number of large peaceful marches in several locations in the centre of Paris. Police reaction was massive and went on for several days, as thousands of Algerians were arrested and corralled in internment centres, beaten, tortured and killed, in addition to those killed on the streets; and near the bridges (St Michel, Neuilly, Clichy), thrown into the Seine.
After the massacre, there were very few, muted, protests. In March 1962, a general amnesty was declared for crimes and misdemeanours committed related to law and order operations during the Algerian war; the matter of the massacre had been dropped much before that. Since then, even when there has been some official recognition that events had taken place, they were mentioned as a general ‘repression’ and no responsibility assigned or acknowledged. For example the Mayor of Paris presided over the unveiling of a plaque on the St Michel Bridge on 17 October 2001 “to the memory of the many Algerians killed during the bloody repression of the peaceful demonstration of 17 October 1961”. The same day there was a walk out of the right of centre and right deputies in the Chamber of Deputies when mention was made of a ‘racist curfew’ in 1961.
Similarly, on the 2012 anniversary, Francois Hollande made an official announcement that ‘On 17 October 1961, Algerians demonstrating for the right to independence were killed in the course of a bloody repression. The Republic acknowledges these facts with lucidity. Fifty-one years after this tragedy, I pay homage to the memory of the victims.” (The demonstrations were not ‘for independence’, but it is true that they were part of that struggle.)
Marie-Odile Terrenoire was shocked to hear, in the course of a non-governmental commemoration which took place in Paris in 2011, the events qualified as ‘state crime’. That demonstration was organised by a number of associations. Marchers held up silhouettes bearing the names of Algerians killed or disappeared on the 17th and subsequent days. The son of one of the ministers who were like Terrenoire and Michelet in favour of the independence of Algeria, Denis Joxe, had made the silhouettes. Unlike the original marches, this one was mixed Algerian and French.
When historians began to attempt to write an account of the events, they found many documents had been destroyed. When archives started to be opened, two reports ordered by ministers were written, neither of which satisfied historians. So, why this massacre when negotiations were underway?
Marie-Odile Terrenoire wishes to show that it was not a state decision or a state crime, since some ministers, including her father, were in favour of Algerian independence, as was De Gaulle. British historians Jim House and Neil MacMaster, authors of an important book on the subject, on the contrary throw the blame on De Gaulle. According to them,
it was to put pressure on the FLN that, from July to October 1961, De Gaulle gave Debré and his associates enough room of manoeuvre to implement a strategy of intransigence. The extreme anti Algerian violence unleashed during September and October 1961 is not so much due to uncontrolled extremist elements in the police (the official version of events) but rather the instrument of government policy. In other words, intense repression was designed to challenge and weaken the FLN and make sure they were not in a position of power during the negotiations. Anti-FLN police actions continued unabated after the event of mid-October, leading to the arrest of important FLN leaders 9-10 November.