The Algerian War of Independence had entered its seventh year when the Paris massacre occurred and France was in a state of crisis over the decolonisation struggle.

In May 1958, the war led to the collapse of France’s Fourth Republic (a system characterised by frequent changes of government and a weak executive branch). A perception that successive French governments were not doing enough to hold onto Algeria prompted a bloodless military coup. Charles de Gaulle, the revered leader of Free France during World War II, returned to power with widespread political support. Six months later, he became the founding president of France’s Fifth Republic, characterised by a strong presidency, which endures to this day.

De Gaulle visited Algeria days after taking power – making his famous proclamation, “Long live French Algeria!” But de Gaulle knew that Algerian independence was inevitable and that the brutal conflict needed to end. De Gaulle staked his political future when he called a referendum in January 1961 – in which 75 percent of the French people voted for Algeria’s self-determination.

Diehards saw de Gaulle as a traitor and vowed to keep Algeria French at all costs. A month after the referendum, Jean-Jacques Susini and Pierre Lagaillarde set up a paramilitary group, the Secret Armed Organisation (OAS), to achieve this end. The OAS motto was a vow to “strike where it wants, when it wants”.

On the night of April 21 to 22, four OAS-supporting French generals – André Zeller, Edmond Jouhaud, Raoul Salan and Maurice Challe – tried to seize control of Algeria in a putsch. But four days later, the French authorities finally prevailed over the renegade military officers. Challe and Zeller were imprisoned, but Salan and Jouhaud went underground and took over as OAS leaders.

In May 1961, France and the FLN’s political wing, the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (GPRA), started official talks in the French Alpine spa town, Évian. But the negotiations stopped abruptly the following month, as France insisted on retaining control of the geostrategically significant Sahara region, which Algeria refused.

That turbocharged the violence once again – and not just in Algeria. “From August 1961, French opponents of Algerian independence were trying to provoke violent repression of the FLN within France, thinking that this would help squash the talks,” explained Gilles Manceron, author of “La Triple Occultation d’un Massacre” [Three Cover-ups of a Massacre], published together with another historical study, “Le 17 Octobre des Algériens” by Marcel and Paulette Péju.

But things did not unfold as the anti-independence diehards expected: de Gaulle renounced France’s claim to the Sahara, allowing talks to resume.

The return to the negotiating table went badly for some, including in the government. “Many people who’d supported de Gaulle’s return to power in 1958 – indeed his prime minister, Michel Debré – were opposed to Algerian independence. Debré was responsible for maintaining order in France, and he appointed one of his own men, the hardliner Roger Frey, as interior minister,” noted Manceron. Another hardliner, Maurice Papon, had been head of the Paris police since March 1958.

“The repression started with police raids, but there were also unofficial sections of the police playing a role like that of Latin American death squads,” Manceron continued.

The FLN ramped up the pressure with terrorist attacks in France – notably in Paris – as soon as the Évian talks were suspended. The police, as a symbol of the French state, were a particular target.

“It was a kind of war in Paris,” said Jean-Marc Berlière, a historian of the French police. “Sentries would stand in concrete blocks outside police stations surrounded by barbed wire. From January 1958 until the end of 1961, 47 police officers were killed and 137 wounded – and that’s just those working for the Paris force.”

Paris police HQ, a ‘state within a state’

The Paris police force was completely independent of the national force. It was a “state within a state”, said Berlière, noting that Paris had more police officers than the total number for the rest of France. People often said the head of the Paris police was “more powerful than the interior minister because he had thousands of officers under his command in the French capital”, Berlière continued.

Papon was in Algeria for much of the 1950s, in charge of the police in the northeastern city of Constantine. When he returned to France in 1958, he decided to make life harder for Algerians in Paris, with a marked uptick in identity checks of “French Muslims of Algeria” (FMA), as they were officially called.

On both sides of the Mediterranean, Algerians known as harkis fought alongside the French against the FLN. In 1959, Debré created the FPA, an auxiliary police force made up of harkis to fight the French branch of the FLN. Many of those harkis and their family members were “murdered, tortured or pressured” by the FLN, according to Berlière. “They displayed the same savagery in return.”

The FPA engaged in raids, executions and brutal interrogations of their FLN opponents. “Bodies of Algerians were fished out of the Seine every day,” said Fabrice Riceputi, author of “Ici, On Noya les Algériens” [Here, We Drowned Algerians].

“Imperialist racism was very prevalent in France at the time and Algerians were its principal target,” Riceputi added. “Extreme police brutality could go unpunished, swept under the carpet by state institutions – including a justice system that refused to prosecute crimes carried out by the police and a media with enormous reach that relayed false versions of such events.”

The situation deteriorated even further in autumn 1961. Nerves were frayed all round. Each and every terrorist attack against the police demoralised them further. “In August and September ’61, eight Parisian police officers were killed,” noted Berlière. Discontent was brewing in police ranks, with fears of insubordination, strikes and demonstrations. The government was paralysed. They did not want a repeat of the police strike and protests of March 1958, which was a catalyst for the fall of the Fourth Republic, explained Berlière.

Police unions were calling for a fierce response against the FLN. Papon gave them what they wanted. “For every blow against us, we’ll fight back with ten,” he said on October 2, 1961 at the funeral of a slain police sergeant. Papon even encouraged the police to shoot first.

“The OAS had infiltrated the ranks of the police. So, to ensure the force stayed loyal to the government, Papon, Debré and Frey gave these police officers what they wanted, notably the curfew, which was the cause of the October 17 demonstrations,” said Berlière. On October 5, Papon signed a curfew decree covering just one category of citizens: the French Muslims of Algeria or FMA.

Papon’s order came into effect the next day.

“In order to put an end to criminal acts of the terrorists without delay,” the decree read, “the police headquarters has decided on some new measures. To execute these new measures, Algerian workers are urgently advised to stay indoors and not be out on the streets of Paris or the Paris suburbs, especially between 8.30pm and 5.30am. Those who have to go out during these hours because of professional obligations may ask their local authorities for a certificate that will allow them to do so, after their request has been validated. It has been observed that most of the attacks have been carried out by groups of three or four men. Consequently, French Muslims are strongly advised to travel alone, since small groups risk appearing suspicious to police patrols. Finally, the head of the Paris police has decided that drinking establishment frequented by French Algerian Muslims must close every day at 7pm.”

Algerians protesting in the Grand Boulevards area of central Paris. AFP


The French Federation of the FLN was determined to respond robustly to the curfew. As well as its discriminatory nature, the curfew troubled the group because it harmed its operations, as clandestine meetings to fund and help organise the fight in Algeria mainly took place in the evenings. From a strategic point of view, the FLN leadership saw that the response had to draw wide support – and above all it had to be peaceful.

In deep secrecy, the FLN started organising a march against the curfew and police repression of Algerians more broadly. The group called on Algerian men, women and children to take to the streets of Paris on the evening of October 17.

“It was a peaceful demonstration to break the curfew aimed only at Algerians” to highlight that this measure was “unconstitutional, contravening a central principle of the French Republic: the equality of all citizens before the law”, explained Manceron.

The protest call also benefitted an FLN ridden by internecine rivalries, noted Berlière. “The French branch of the FLN on the ground were doing a lot of unpleasant work – collecting ‘revolutionary tax’ dues, murdering people, carrying out attacks, and bearing the brunt of police brutality. They were doing the dirty work, but they knew they wouldn’t be rewarded with power in the new Algerian state. That would be for those in exile in countries such as Tunisia and Germany, they would get the top jobs.”

The October 17 protest served a further purpose for the FLN’s French branch, Berlière added: “They wanted to have martyrs, to be used as a card to bolster their position in the soon-to-be Algerian state. The only problem was, they hadn’t foreseen that there would be a total [media] blackout in Paris [censoring any reference to the violence in its aftermath]. Letting women and children face police officers, who had a no-holds-barred approach because of what they’d been through, is something the FLN bears some responsibility for, and that is never mentioned.”

Paris police HQ had learned of the march in advance. Papon was determined that the protest should not take place. He set up a plan to stop it.

At around 6pm on October 17, between 20,000 to 30,000 Algerians from the suburbs and various parts of Paris flocked to the city centre by train, metro or on foot. Their instructions were clear: they should not carry any weapons and they should certainly not respond to any provocations.

Several routes were planned: along the Boulevard Saint-Michel on the Left Bank at the southern edge of central Paris; between Place de la République and Opéra on the other side of the Seine; and along the symbolic Champs-Élysées. But police were already blocking the entrances to Paris, notably the Porte de Neuilly at the city’s western edge. Some 1,600 police officers were stationed at key locations, in particular the exits of Place de l’Étoile (near the Arc de Triomphe), Opéra and Concorde metro stations. They were heavily armed, bearing submachine guns, rifles and batons.

“You’ve got to imagine the state of mind of those police officers,” said Berlière. “There was a widespread hatred of the Arabs, whom they called ‘melons’. Many of those officers had served in Algeria. They were pleased to hear there’d be a demonstration on October 17: it was an opportunity for revenge.”

The police descended on demonstrators on metro station platforms, clubbing them with batons and arresting them. Police charged at protesters on the Pont Saint-Michel, bridging the Left Bank to the Île-de-Cité where Notre-Dame is located. Violence was unleashed everywhere.

The Paris police gave the rank-and-file false information to rile them up – telling them there were heavily armed Algerians on the streets and that police officers had been killed. This was confirmed by Raoul Letard, a young brigadier in the Paris police at the time, whose testimony was published in the weekly magazine, L’Express, in 1997: “A colleague said on the radio: ‘Lads, this is it! The little rats’ – we used to call them little rats – ‘are meeting on the Champs-Élysées and it looks like they’re going to attack the 8th district police station.’ Then later he said: ‘There are policemen surrounded by little rats!’ So at that point, even the blokes sitting there playing cards got ready to go. Death was in the air. So we started to help ourselves to what was in the toolkit. Everyone was looking for the best bat”.

These false statements to the rank-and-file “show just how much Paris police HQ was doing the exact opposite of maintaining order”, said Emmanuel Blanchard, author of “Le 17 octobre 1961 à Paris : Une Démonstration Algérienne, Un Massacre Colonial” [October 17, 1961 in Paris: An Algerian Demonstration, A Colonial Massacre], a text published on the website of France’s Museum of the History of Immigration.

More than 11,000 Algerians were arrested that night. After they were arrested, demonstrators were held in buses requisitioned from RATP, France’s state-owned public transport network. Many were then transported to ad hoc detention centres including the Porte-de-Versailles sports arena at Paris’s southern edge, the Coubertin sports arena to the southwest of the city, and at the former Hôpital Beaujon in the northern Parisian suburb of Clichy.

Some Algerians were beaten to death, bludgeoned by clubs, batons or other such contraptions. Some were shot dead. Some were thrown into the Seine; some already dead, some still alive, their feet and hands bound. They were the people “drowned by bullets” according to Paris police HQ’s official expression. For several days, those bodies washed up in the Seine and Paris’s canals.

‘The official version is outrageously false’

Parisians stare at clothes and shoes of Algerian protesters after the violent police crackdown. UPI, AFP

In a press release, Paris police HQ said two people were killed at the Pont de Neuilly, a bridge over the Seine to the west of Paris, during an “exchange of gunfire” between police and protesters who had been “forced to demonstrate due to FLN threats”. This official death toll reported 44 people injured.

A few days later, the tally was raised to three dead and 64 injured. No police officers were reported killed. “A dozen officers had to go to the hospital,” Papon said.

The FLN said 200 people were killed, 400 were missing and 2,300 injured.

Three decades later, in 1991, Jean-Luc Einaudi published “La Bataille de Paris: Octobre 17, 1961” [The Battle of Paris, October 17, 1961]. Einaudi’s work was the first study on the events of that night – and his investigation confirmed that 200 Algerians were killed during this outburst of police violence, part of a total death toll of 325 during September and October 1961.

A 1998 report commissioned by then interior minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement used police and medical archives to revise the official death toll upwards to 32. A year later, Investigative Magistrate Jean Geromini used judicial records to confirm that 48 Algerians were drowned in the Seine on October 17, 1961. However, Geromini thought this was still an underestimate, writing that the figure was “very likely lower than the real number, because it is uncertain that all of the many submerged bodies were found, while corpses were carried far downstream, as far as […] Rouen [in Normandy], where the archives are incomplete”.

The same year that Geromini produced his report, one of the few historians to have gained access to police records, Jean-Paul Brunet, concluded that 30 to 40 deaths could be confirmed. Brunet however noted that reports of hundreds of demonstrators killed by the police were exaggerations, a number of Algerians were murdered by the FLN for either failing to pay their dues or because of a perceived failure to rally to the cause.

The death toll is still hotly disputed. But historians agree that between 100 and 300 people were killed from September to October. “We can estimate that around 150 people were killed on October 17; at least over 100,” Riceputi said. “That date can be seen as a peak in a long period of what Jim House and Neil MacMaster call ‘state terror’ – starting in August, when the FLN started attacking the police and army in Paris – until November. Corpses were found in the Seine throughout that period; there were probably 300 during this time. The official version is outrageously false.

As France woke up on October 18, there was an almost complete information blackout. The official version took hold. It went thus: After the FLN forced Algerians to demonstrate, some fired shots, forcing the police to retaliate in self-defence. The press – including the left-wing press – was censored during the Algerian War and was happy to go along with that story. The French population naturally went along with it too.

For several days, detained demonstrators protested, notably at the Versailles sports arena. Others were sent back to Algeria and imprisoned there. “There were around 1,000 to 2,000 Algerians who were sent back – we don’t know the precise figures,” said Manceron. “They were put in camps. What’s become of them?” the historian asked, suggesting that they could well have been killed and that the death toll could be revised even higher.

Protesters crammed into buses heading to ad hoc detention centres on the outskirts of Paris. UPI, AFP
Police lead a detained Algerian demonstrator to a car outside the Palais des Sports arena, one of the makeshift detention centres. UPI, AFP
Algerian women seeking news of their loved ones. UPI, AFP
A police officer at Orly airport searches an Algerian man before his deportation to Algiers on October 19, 1961. AFP
Algerian deportees about to board a flight to Algiers at Orly airport on October 19, 1961. AFP

Some journalists were keen to break through the censorship. Élie Kagan was one of few photographers walking the streets of Paris on the night of October 17. His photos show men trapped by police on metro platforms, men with their hands pressed to the wall or forced into the air in front of police officers bearing machine guns, wounded men covered in blood, and dead bodies.

After several rejections, Kagan’s photos were published by the Christian weekly magazine, Témoignage Chrétien, on October 27.

A few weeks later, journalist Paulette Péju tried to publish a book on the police repression of Algerians, “Ratonnades à Paris” [Racist Attacks in Paris]. The judicial police immediately suppressed the book. Jacques Panijel’s documentary, “Octobre à Paris” got the same treatment; it was banned in 1962.

But slowly, people started to talk. Victims’ families lodged complaints; they were dismissed. Few politicians raised concerns; when they did, the government or Papon denied that anything happened to be concerned about. No inquiry or commission was launched. Several amnesties were decreed for people supposedly maintaining law and order in France, while access to the archives was blocked, as Riceputi recalled in his book, “Ici On Noya les Algériens”.

As Papon told the Paris local council on November 13, 1961: “We won the battle of Paris!”

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