130 largely young people were brutally murdered in Paris by ISIL: this massacre saw unprecedented expressions of solidarity throughout much of the world. Photos of many of those murdered were printed in western newspapers. The memorial ceremony in Paris was televised in Britain. English football fans sang the Marseillaise – a welcome change from the usual racist and xenophobic chanting frequently directed at Irish people, Turks and anyone else who isn’t English. A welcome change also from the racist abuse and violence directed at a black Frenchman by Chelsea supporters on the Paris Metro. But how much of this expression of support and solidarity is because those murdered were mainly white Europeans.
Some reporters and correspondents have referred to the killings as the worst massacre in France since the second world war. No doubt they are sincere in this belief but they are wrong. The worst massacre in France since the second world war took place in Paris on the evening of 17 October 1961.
The reason why so little is known about the 1961 massacre, which probably resulted in about 200 deaths, is that the victims were all Algerians and their killers were the French police. The government had banned demonstrations (how little changes!) but perhaps 30,000 Algerians and their supporters took to the streets in a peaceful demonstration. Police raids were carried out all over the city, with not only Algerians but Tunisians, Moroccans, even Spanish, Portuguese or Italians (i.e. people who supposedly looked Arabic), being detained. Those arrested were taken to the same detention centres that had been used by the Nazis for transportation of Jews to the extermination camps. This was no accident: the head of the Paris Police was Maurice Papon who was convicted in 1998 of crimes against humanity for his role under the pro-Nazi Vichy regime during World War 2. Those detained were subject to savage beatings, as a result of which many died.
Some of those arrested on the demonstrations had their hands tied behind their back and were thrown into the river Seine. Others were beaten unconscious and then thrown into the river from bridges. Still others were beaten to death in the courtyard of the Paris police headquarters by police officers who had removed all identification from their uniforms. Any police officer who protested had their please ignored by senior officers and threats of reprisals from those who participated in the killings silenced anyone who was shocked by the brutality.
However, for 40 years successive French governments denied any such massacre had taken place. It was not until1998 that the French government admitted that ‘several dozen’ people had been killed: the initial death toll was claimed to be 2, later adjusted to 3 and finalised in 1998 at 48. In fact no-one knows exactly how many were murdered on 17 October 1961 – not least because the police did everything in their powers to cover their crimes, destroying evidence, ‘losing’ documentation, pressurising medical staff, examining magistrates etc. The research done by historian Jean-Luc Einaudi would suggest a death toll of about 200, though others have put the figure anywhere between 70 and 400.
On the 40th anniversary of the massacre, 17 October 2001 Bertrand Delanoë, Socialist Party Mayor of Paris, unveiled a memorial plaque near the Pont Saint-Michel. The plaque commemorates ‘numerous’ Algerians killed during the bloody repression of a peaceful demonstration. However, it doesn’t mention that it was the police, acting on behalf of the French government and state, who carried out the bloody repression of a peaceful demonstration. Nor was any police officer ever brought to justice for the massacre: they were included in the amnesty agreed at the end of France’s bloody colonial war in Algeria.
There is a further parallel with the situation today. While the ISIL murders in Paris rightly received much reportage (and condemnation) very little was said about the killing the previous day of 43 Lebanese Shia Muslims at a market in Beirut. True only about one third of the people killed in Paris died in Beirut but the coverage of the two events was more like Paris 99%, Beirut 1% – nothing even vaguely approximating to a proportional response.
On 8 February 1962 another demonstration calling for peace in Algeria was attacked by police at Charonne metro station. 9 people were killed. But this time the victims were French communists and members of the CGT trade union. This time there was wide-spread publicity about the killings: hundreds of thousands attended the funerals on 13 February 1962. The ‘affair of Charonne metro station’ became a cause-celebre for the French (and international) left while the much bigger massacre of Algerians a few months earlier was largely ignored.
So yes, let us remember the dead of Paris but let us also remember all those killed by ISIS – the vast majority of whom are Muslims – and the far greater number killed by Bashar al-Assad. And let us not forget that the biggest massacre on French soil since the second world war was carried out by French police against Algerians.