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Remembering 59-year-old massacre of Algerians in France, no apology in sight

30th Oct 2020
Remembering 59-year-old massacre of Algerians in France, no apology in sight

October 17, Paris: People attend a remembrance ceremony to mark the 59th anniversary of 1961 Paris massacre, when 400 Algerian protestors were murdered and thrown into the Seine River

(Credit: Alaattin Doğru/Anadolu Agency)

Ali Waliken

October 17, 1961: over 600 Algerians were chucked into the river Seine by the Paris police and left to drown. Twenty thousand migrant workers and their families converged to central Paris that evening to protest peacefully over their sub-human conditions and to demonstrate for their country’s independence from France.

Many historians, writers and journalists wrote about this massacre which is still not recognised as such, among them American writer, Laurel Berger. On October 17, 2019, she wrote in the Los Angeles Review of Books a piece entitled, ‘How to Forget a Massacre: What Happened in Paris on October 17, 1961.’ In it, she depicts the massacre after a detailed inquiry.

“People were coming from all directions and were meant to converge in columns at central points throughout the city, but in many cases, the police cut the marchers off at the pass. […] In fact, [the police] were capturing and bashing in the skulls of Algerian protestors throughout Paris, from the outlying suburbs to the Place de l’Opéra to the Champs-Élysées. At the Pont Saint-Michel Bridge and elsewhere, observers witnessed policemen throwing people from the stone parapets of bridges into the Seine. The current would bear away the dead, dying, and the unconscious.”

Who was behind this massacre? It was Maurice Papon, who headed the Paris police from 1958 to 1966, well after Algeria’s independence in 1962—and nobody in France had sought to blame nor prosecute Papon for his alleged anti-Algerian crimes.

It was not until 1983 that charges for crimes against mankind were brought against Papon. But the charges were not over the drowning of over 600 Algerians in the Seine. Rather, they were related to claims of deportation of French Jews to Germany in 1942, during World War II under the puppet Government of Vichy under which Papon had served. However, the evidence presented then was not enough to impeach him and so legal wrangling went on until 1995 when Papon was charged with crime against humanity over the Jewish question and sentenced to 12 years in jail.

On his first visit to Algeria shortly after his election, whether a serious statement or just a rhetorical slip is off point, President Emmanuel Macron said that what France had done in Algeria was a crime against humanity. He was duly reprimanded on his return to Paris, and he apologized for mentioning crime against humanity.

The issue was then forgotten, especially as the ruling pro-French elite in Algeria have a habit of not demanding any historical redress.The commemoration of the 1961 massacre has repeatedly occurred, in the post-colonialism period, against a backdrop of mounting, engineered western Islamophobia that has been most noticeably active in France, the so-called country of human rights Declaration.

This year this commemoration came over after a French history secondary school teacher had, in early October in a school near Paris, reportedly asked his Muslim pupils to leave the classroom because he was going to deal with the controversial cartoons of Prophet Muhammad published years earlier by the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.
Pupils and parents were incensed at the new provocation. Some parents started campaigning to ask the school and the Government to act.

On October 7, one such parent, Ibrahim C used Facebook to urge other parents to send “at least a mail to the school, the Collective against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), the school inspectorate service, the Education Minister or the President [of the Republic].” Ibrahim C repeated his appeal to the parents on October 11 saying, “If you wish to support us and help us to lodge a complaint, let us come together to say stop-don’t touch our children. Contact the CCIF.”

But the school and the authorities chose to ignore the parents’ protest. Unfortunately, on October 16, an 18-year-old Chechen from a refugee family killed the teacher, Samuel Paty. Taking the law in one’s hand cannot be condoned, and perpetrators of violence must be held to account. Yet, the question remains, who’s inciting such violence and who was behind the teenager?

Following this killing, the authorities decided to take action against the Muslim community. On October 19, Interior Minister, Gérald Darmanin, said that he would suggest to his Government to ban CCIF, judging it to have been “conspicuously implicated” in the events that led to the killing of the teacher. The CCIF was set up in 2003 to help people who are victims of unlawful Islamophobic discrimination. The Interior Minister also said he would propose the banning of several other Islamic NGOs which he dubbed “enemies of the Republic.”

All official and mainstream media anti-Islamic boldness, in France mainly, occurs because of the weakness and disrespect the Arab world has reached in the eyes of the international community. For one, the Algerian rulers installed through the 1992 coup against a democratically elected Islamic Salvation Front, have never defended their expatriates against the abuse they have regularly faced in France.

Nor do they react to French measures affecting Algeria, for example, the attitude of the Algerian authorities in the face of a February 23, 2005 law in France that underlined “the positive role” of French colonialism in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. French historians strongly objected to its draft, arguing that France “imposes an official lie on crimes, on massacres turning sometimes into genocide, on enslavement, on the racism inherited from this past.”

In the meantime, the Francophile Algerian authorities observed a deafening silence, as if Algeria experiences, enslavement and the looting of over 9 million during 132 years of colonialism. It was only when the French daily Le Monde published an article entitled ‘Le grand silence d’Alger’ (‘the conspicuous silence of Algiers’) that some officials made a short-lived noise about the infamous draft that became law.

Anti-Islamic campaigns had been on the up-and-up, especially since the early 1980s in France where Maghrebi and African Muslims have lived for so many decades. After Bernard Henri Levy, Alain Finkielkraut and, since then, Éric Zemmour, former Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, an erstwhile pro-Palestinian suddenly turned against Islam and Muslims. Valls, born to Spanish immigrant parents, was the first French official to officially open the way to outright official anti-Muslim rhetoric in France by uttering the phrase ‘Islamic fascism’ as PM.

Levy, the late André Gluksmann, Finkielkraut and Zemmour have had literary carte blanche to do the Muslim bashing all over the media. Some of these people were even used to try to silence Tariq Ramadhan who brilliantly outsmarted them in televised debates aimed at discrediting him. Levy was the most prominent spokesman for the authors of the coup in Algeria in 1992, relaying a despicable anti-Islam rhetoric all over the media; his biased analyses in the 1990s were exposed in a double spread of the authoritative monthly Le Monde diplomatique.

Meanwhile, the voices of reason and moderation among the French intelligentsia remain shunned by the media. And when one of them is invited to speak on the radio or the television, he/she finds themselves facing the toughest questions possible from the interviewing journalist, or they find themselves facing three or more antagonists who would interrupt them constantly so that they do not finish replying to questions.

France’s media and official antagonism of Islam and Muslims is not expected to change without regime change in Algeria. The latter is now the biggest country in Africa and one of the richest with the potential to be a major Mediterranean powerhouse. But observers note that the strongest force of change in the whole Maghreb region remains Islam to which France has always been antagonistic. This is why in 1992 France threw all its weight behind the coup leaders who interrupted a democratic process that had brought to power a newly formed Islamic party.

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Over 120 people attended a landmark conference on the media reporting of Islam and Muslims. It was held jointly by The Muslim News and Society of Editors in London on September 15.

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