On October 17 1961, five months before the end of the colonial war that opposed Algeria and France for seven years, Paris witnessed a massacre where more than 150 Algerians were killed by the police forces. The events followed a peaceful demonstration of 30 000 Algerians protesting against an administrative measure which they considered racist. Indeed, a curfew had just been applied to “Algerian Muslim workers”, “French Muslims” and “French Muslims of Algeria” from 8:30 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. in order to prevent the spread of Algerian attacks in the French territory.
The head of the police, Maurice Papon – a man convicted in 1998 for crimes against the humanity for his role in the deportation of more than 1600 Jews to concentration camps – had mobilized 7000 policemen to block the demonstration. More than 11 000 people were arrested that day. Although at the time Papon spoke only of 2 casualties, historians have shown that at least more than 150 demonstrators were murdered, many of whom were thrown into the Seine to drown. It was the day where the river “Seine was red”.
On October 31, a group of anonymous “republican policemen” published a text declaring that they had a moral obligation to bring their testimonies public. In it, Emile Portzer, who in 1999 admitted being its main author, wrote that “Among the thousands of Algerians brought to the Parc des Expositions of the Porte de Versailles, tens were killed by blows from rifle butts and pickaxe handles (…) Algerians captured in (…) traps were knocked out and systematically thrown in the Seine. (…) Not before having taken their watches and money. Mr. Papon, prefect of the police, and Mr. Legay, general director of the municipal police, assisted to these horrible scenes(…).”
Despite the extent of the killing, the massacre of 1961 remained for many years an absolute tabu. Following the events, the massacre was poorly covered by the French media, which was predominantly supportive of the government’s action regarding Algeria. Furthermore, it took 40 years for the government to acknowledge its responsibility, until the Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë put a plaque in remembrance of the massacre on the Saint-Michel bridge.