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According to declassified archives published Monday by Mediapart, the October 17, 1961 massacre of several dozen Algerians had been reported to the Head of State, Charles de Gaulle. The President of the Republic had then expressed his indignation and wished to shed light, while maintaining in office the prefect Maurice Papon and the ministers responsible.
Sixty years after the events, archives published on Monday June 6 by the Mediapart site shed new light on the massacre of October 17, 1961 and the knowledge of the then Head of State, Charles de Gaulle, on this subject.
As the Algerian war was coming to an end, a demonstration by the French Muslims of Algeria (FMA) was violently suppressed in Paris. For several decades, the official death toll was three. Today, it is established at least 48 dead for this single night of October, even if for many historians, it is well over a hundred.
“Thanks to very recent openings, although partial, of the archives on the Algerian war, we were able to have access to a certain number of documents from the De Gaulle presidency, which show that the Head of State of ‘Epoque knew everything, and very quickly, about the crime, that is to say the participation of the police in what one can call a crime of the State and the magnitude of the tragedy,’ explains Mediapart journalist Fabrice Arfi, guest on France 24.
>> To (re) read, our web documentary: October 17, 1961, a massacre of Algerians in the heart of Paris
In the declassified archives, Mediapart found a note dated October 28, 1961, written by General de Gaulle’s adviser for Algerian affairs, Bernard Tricot. He tells the President of the Republic that “there would be 54 dead”. “Some were said to have been drowned, others strangled, others still shot dead. The legal proceedings have been opened. It is unfortunately likely that these investigations could have led to the questioning of certain police officers”, explains the senior official. .
In a second note, dated November 6, 1961, Bernard Tricot explains to Charles de Gaulle a “question of governmental order”: “to know if we will limit ourselves to letting affairs follow their course, in which case it is probable that they will will get bogged down, or if the Minister of Justice [Bernard Chenot, NDLR] as well as the Minister of the Interior [Roger Frey, NDLR] must inform the magistrates and officers of the competent judicial police that the government wants the light to be shed”. General de Gaulle’s adviser continues: “It is very important, it seems, that the government takes in this deal with a position which, while seeking to avoid scandal as much as possible, shows everyone that certain things should not be done and that they should not be allowed to happen”.
“The crime remains forever unpunished”
The note, found in the National Archives after it was declassified last December, bears General de Gaulle’s handwritten response: “we must shed light and prosecute the culprits” and “the Minister of the Interior must take view the police with an attitude of ‘authority’, which he does not take”.
For Fabrice Arfi, this note “shows that the President of the Republic at the time asked that the culprits be prosecuted and that the light be shed, even going so far as to lecture his Minister of the Interior who, according to General de Gaulle, did not show authority vis-à-vis the excesses of the police”.
“However, nothing will happen, the crime remains forever unpunished”, specifies the journalist. No proceedings against police officers have thus been initiated. The Ministers of the Interior and of Justice have been confirmed in their functions, as has Maurice Papon, who has always denied any police violence. The latter was convicted in 1998 for complicity in crimes against humanity, but for his role in the deportation of Jews between 1942 and 1944.
Even if General de Gaulle never explained himself on this point, Fabrice Arfi estimated, according to the historians he consulted, that the president “in reality relatively politically weak within his own majority, in particular in the face of a Prime Minister, Michel Debré, to whom he owed a lot for his return to politics in 1958 and who embodied a very hard line on the Algerian question”.
Recognize a “state crime”
At a ceremony for the 60e anniversary of the massacre, the French presidency was recognized in October 2021 for the first time that “nearly 12,000 Algerians were arrested and transferred to sorting centers at the Coubertin stadium, the Sports Palace and other places. In addition to numerous injuries, several dozen were killed, their bodies thrown into the Seine. Emmanuel Macron had denounced, in a press release, “inexcusable crimes” committed “under the authority of Maurice Papon”.
But the demonstrators, witnesses of the tragedy, families of victims, associations or even historians are still demanding recognition of a “racist crime” and a “state crime”. Presented on October 17, 1961, Djamila Amrane has been fighting for years for this massacre to “enter the history of France”. “It didn’t happen in Algiers, it happened in Paris,” she insisted to France 24. “France must recognize that there was a massacre of people who protested peacefully.”
Despite everything, she notes that the highlighting of this dark episode has improved and she welcomes the discovery of these new archives. “Last year, for the first time, a prefect and a president went to the quays of the Seine for the anniversary. It is beginning to be known that these people were massacred and that for some we did not even what they have become. This cannot be forgotten”.