PETER FROST looks back to 1961 at another act of bloodshed on the streets of France’s capital.
There can be no excuse for the brutal acts of terrorism in Paris recently.
Watching the recent TV coverage and reading the papers I kept coming across the phrase “this is the worst atrocity in France since WWII.” Sadly that simply isn’t true.
Let me take you back to October 1961. President Charles de Gaulle (below) was working hard to establish his and France’s pre-eminent position in what was then called the Common Market, a predecessor of the EU founded in 1957.
Britain wouldn’t join until 1973.
The French industrial working class was led by a powerful Communist Party that had earned its reputation and support as the most effective resistance to the nazi occupation forces just a few years before. The Communists were fighting de Gaulle’s right-wing policies — and just as militant as French workers were French farmers.
On the streets of Paris and other French towns, Algerian immigrants were protesting and demanding independence for their north African homeland, which was then a French colony. It would win its freedom in 1962.
The more militant Algerians were organised in the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN), the main political party in Algeria. It had a socialist programme and many supporters among the Algerian immigrant population in France.
Opposing them, often with great violence, were the ultra right-wing Organisation Armee Secrete (OAS). These were a group of disaffected army officers, soldiers, veterans of the Foreign Legion, rightist politicians and others determined to keep Algeria a French colony.
The OAS was a well-armed paramilitary organisation. They were happy to use murder and terrorism in their campaign. Their battle cry was “Algeria is French and will remain so.”
Predictably the Algerians in and out of the NLF fought back. They too brought violent protest and mass demonstrations to the streets.
And so the scene was set for what would be an even bigger massacre on the streets of Paris than that of recent days.
A FLN march of 30,000 unarmed Algerians demonstrated in central Paris against a racist curfew. Seven thousand police and special security forces armed with heavy riot clubs and guns attacked the march and hundreds of Muslims were beaten, shot, strangled and even drowned.
Thousands were rounded up and taken to detention centres around the city where there were more beatings and killings.
Accurate figures for deaths were never issued and the media, which was much more heavily controlled by the state at the time, hushed up and underplayed casualty figures and the events.
How many died? No-one knows for sure. Best estimates suggest more than 200, but later eyewitness reports over the years have indicated the number of victims could be very much higher.
Among those eyewitnesses were some foreign journalists who found their agencies and publications strangely reluctant to print their stories. Some reported piles of Muslim corpses “like piles of logs in a forest.”
They also reported seeing large numbers of drowned bodies floating in the River Seine, where crowds of demonstrators had been driven into the water by armed police. Bodies were being recovered downstream for weeks afterwards.
Thousands of Algerians were rounded up and brought to detention centres, where the violence against them continued. Scores of Algerians were murdered on the orders of senior police officers in the courtyard of the central police headquarters.
The head of Paris police at the time, and the man who ordered the attack on the peaceful march that ended in a massacre, was Maurice Papon (below). He advised his forces that there would be no action taken against them, however violent or illegal their acts.
Papon was a nazi. When Hitler occupied France he became a leading police officer in the Vichy government that collaborated with the nazi occupying forces.
After the war Papon also tortured prisoners as head of a police department in Algeria during the colonial war.
Rather than being brought to justice, de Gaulle awarded him the Legion of Honour. Papon was finally forced to resign in 1967 after the suspicious disappearance of Moroccan leader Mehdi Ben Barka.
That disgrace didn’t end his public career. Instead he entered parliament and de Gaulle made him a director of the Sud Aviation company, which created Concorde. He became an MP and a millionaire.
Finally in 1981 details about his WWII nazi past emerged in a satirical magazine. In 1998 he was convicted of crimes against humanity for his part in the deportation of more than 1,600 Jews to concentration camps.
He served only four years and was subsequently released from prison in 2002 on the grounds of ill health. He died in 2007.
Just like his WWII war crimes, Papon’s 1961 Paris massacre was largely covered up at the time.
The French press repeated official figures that only two and, later, five people had died in the demonstration.
Government-owned and controlled French TV showed Algerians being shipped out of France after the demonstration, but showed none of the police violence.
In Britain the Establishment media stuck to the official French government version, including lies that the Algerians had opened fire first.
A year later Algeria won its independence. As the French empire slowly crumbled, north African Muslim immigrants faced racism and ghetto living in France. They filled the low-paid anti-social jobs, and predictably resentment grew.
Generations of marginalisation and alienation provided fertile ground for fundamentalism to put down its evil roots.
Other parts of the old French empire have all been major targets for fundamentalist terrorist groups. Places such as Lebanon, where Beirut (below) was once known as the Paris of the Levant; the Sahara state of Mali, when the Foreign Legion held sway in places such as Timbuktu; and Tunisia’s tourist beaches.
There is an old saying: “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Sadly it seems to be more relevant every day.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 27 November 2015.