Kader was a student at a French university in Paris in 1961. Though we know little about him, it is possible that he was the French-born son of an Algerian immigrant who had moved to France after having served for the French army in one of the world wars. Kader’s life was not easy: he lived a poor existence in the French shantytowns, or bidonevilles, with a manual job and no prospects of a good education. Yet many Algerian immigrants hoped this was still better than the poverty and prospect of unemployment to be found in war-ravaged Algeria, which in 1961 was in the middle of an ongoing conflict and in the process of decolonization from France. But that, in many ways, was not the case.
Algerians living in France faced constant and clear danger. On the one hand, they faced daily frisking from the French police, brutal violence and blind discrimination by the general population, and on the other continuous pressure from the National Liberation Front of Algeria (FLN), eager to recruit French-Algerians to fight for their cause. Kader and many of his peers were the de facto victims of a transnational conflict that would culminate in mainland France, on October 17, 1961, in what is nowadays known as the Paris Massacre of 1961.
The Paris Massacre of 1961 rarely makes headlines in France’s cultural narrative. It is not included in the textbooks that provide an overview of French, or even Algerian, history in either country, never mind the international academic community. But before we try to understand why such an event has been erased from public memory and textbooks, it is important to understand its origins and how it unfolded. As mentioned previously, in 1961 the French empire was in its last gasps. The jewel of the Empire fought back; the FLN organized strikes and sparked a revolutionary war that had France trembling, yet not ready to give up. The attacks of the FLN were not limited to the presence of the French army, but had spread quietly all over mainland France as well.
Throughout 1961 and, in particular, in the days preceding October 17, the attacks of the FLN had been targeting the French police force rather violently—merciless killings in the streets, beatings as violent as the ones that many Algerians living in France were subject to in their everyday life. At the same time, the FLN was recruiting. Though many French-Algerians wanted French citizenship, they never got it. They had built their lives in France, lived on French soil, some even fell in love and married French men and women, yet they were not really considered French citizens. Rather, the French government had created a specific category, called the French Muslims of Algeria (FMA), to distinguish them from the rest of the French population. The FLN had exploited such a distinction to feed the nationalist feelings of the Algerian population in France.
These events worried the French government, and in particular the French Minister of Internal Affairs, Maurice Bourgès-Maunoury. With the French National Police, the notorious Maurice Papon at its head, on October 16, 1961, they imposed a curfew only on the category of French citizens dubbed the FMA. This curfew meant that those French citizens of Algerian nationality were not allowed to leave their homes after 8pm. If they did, they would be arrested. But the French branch of the FLN could not tolerate such an insult. To counterattack the inhumane laws the French government put in place, they organized a peaceful protest and urged the Algerian population of Paris to gather en masse in the streets of Paris after the curfew, bearing no weapons whatsoever. And gather they did. Women, men, adults and students flooded the main streets of Paris, by all accounts, unarmed and peaceful.
But this protest made the French police uneasy. The French government gave the police force carte blanche authority in the matter of dealing with these protesters. Every Arab-looking individual would be arrested and then beaten. In the streets, the police fired shots that killed a number of Algerians, though the death toll was never confirmed. According to the French government, fewer than 20 were killed; according to the FLN, more than 200. Some were even thrown in the freezing Seine to drown. No one was ever found guilty for this tragedy. The official journalistic accounts and numbers collected by the French governments are now part of the French archives, to be opened only in 2020.
There is, however, a twist to the story. One could consider whether the French government was justified in their approach in imposing a curfew and giving the police carte blanche. It is just as important to remember that though this particular protest was in fact peaceful, the FLN had harmed and attacked several police officers in the past. There was no reason for the police to believe that this protest would be harmless. The ultimate problem was not whether the French government had legitimate concern, but rather, where it found the moral and political authority to single-out one part of the French citizenry and treat them like second-class citizens. The reason why this massacre conflicts with the rest of French history lies precisely in the legitimacy of the government’s actions, with respect to the nature of the republic that they were leading. In a way, even the citizenship status of those Algerians forced at a sort of home-arrest does not justify their actions, especially the actions of a self-proclaimed democratic republic. This conflict, buried forty years ago, reminds the public of the ever-present conundrum—liberty versus security.
Nevertheless, the Paris Massacre was about French citizenship, and this fact begs the question: how can such an episode, which happened in the heart of Paris, while the rest of the city was sleeping, have been so easily forgotten? For the French government, forgetting and erasing this episode was crucial. They had been building a narrative of the French nation, in which the empire was not lauded. And even more, they had been building a narrative of a nation where the French-Algerians were not really present, as they had not participated in the making of the French Republic. In the end, creating a coherent story about the French Republic, as with every other nation, is about remembering, just as much as it is about forgetting and sweeping under the rug those moments that do not fit the narrative.
This particular moment in history, one that has passed unaware to the eye of mainstream imperial or even Western history at large, is an example of how historical amnesia builds the narratives of two countries: France and Algeria. For France, it is the uncomfortable truth on two fronts. On the one hand, it would like to be remembered as the epitome of freedom and democracy. The values of the republic, the ideals of the French Revolution, and the institutions of the Fifth Republic remain intact because people believe them to be efficient. But is a republic efficient when its own citizens are denied the right to protest and are murdered under the orders of its own ministers?
On the other hand, the Paris Massacre is a bitter reminder that issues of citizenship remained unsolved. France has tried very hard to build the image of a coherent nation, with one population under the tricolor flag, a population that is united by its history as much as by its culture—in short, a nation of uniformity. But this image is somewhat false. The question of French citizenship is still a raw spot in 2014, as it was in 1961, when French citizens faced discrimination and were forced to give up part of their civil liberties. To this day, children born in French territories to immigrant parents are not legally French citizens. They have to wait until they are 18, and even then they have to apply. Not all are successful, despite having spent most of their lives in France.
In Algeria, historical narrative is about the people they forgot. The problem with the French-Algerian citizens is that they were never really fully French, but most of those participating in the protests were not Algerians either. The Algerian government never publicized this event, even though it would have suited their plans to portray the French as the villain. The Paris Massacre was omitted from the national narrative, in large part because it was a reminder that these two nations shared a fundamental similarity, despite the attempts of the Algerian government to pretend otherwise. It is also a reminder that the Algerian government might have responsibilities beyond that of Algeria’s own territory. When trying to rebuild a nation ravaged by war and colonial legacies, what happens on the other side of the Mediterranean might not be a priority.
Though cliché, history is written by the winners, and the general narrative is transcribed by the feelings and actions of the man on the spot. For countries like France, it is about Charlemagne, Louis XIV, Robespierre, Napoleon, Charles De Gaulle. But the real history, the one that changes nations, even through omission, is done through the middlemen as they challenge the status quo. People like Kader, whose stories we do not know and whose lives are not outlined in textbooks, are the ones that lived the Paris Massacre. It is important to remember that it is not only about the sacrifice, or the people that died and suffered. The FLN and its protest would be nothing without the 30,000 that showed support for its cause that October night. They were the ones who actively challenged the French government, who through their actions proved that the divide would make them second-class citizens, but not passive victims. History is nothing without the masses and those who fight for the leaders on the covers of history books. It is a pity that this is so often forgotten.
The Paris Massacre of 1961 has only recently resurfaced in the French national consciousness. In 2005, a film appeared that described the event and the conflict: Nuit Noire. This narrative film follows the fictional lives of the many participants in this massacre: French-Algerian citizens and their daily struggles and French policemen, scared of the organized attacks that the FLN brought to their homes. It is a dark film that describes the lives of those who lived it. Following its release, the French newspaper Le Monde was among the first to bring attention to the Paris Massacre and what it described as the night that cadavers flooded the Seine. Critics lauded the sobriety of Nuit Noire, pointing out that it did not favor or pick sides, rather displaying the faults and excesses of each. Other stories and books followed Nuit Noire, all attempts to reach the people, not just the media. It is no coincidence that Nuit Noire was first released as a television series, before hitting cinemas as a full-length film.
These attempts have been well received by French media, and yet the average French citizen still does not know much about the Paris Massacre. Even if they did, it would probably not rupture their notion of French citizenship, or even what it means to be French. Stories like the Paris Massacre of 1961 are omitted from mainstream French history—or any history for that matter—because these omissions are used as a tool to keep the nation together. History is continuously written and rewritten by academics, as it always has been, and the debate on nationhood and memory seems to remain in the ivory tower, rather than becoming the problems of the ordinary citizen. The Paris Massacre of 1961 is a prime example of that. It challenged the French government then, and it still challenges the government now. It does not appear in mainstream school textbooks, as it displays a conflict within French history, a moment when what it meant to be “French” was not clear: a moment when the French were fighting the French. In such instances, memory is constantly used by government, with the perhaps unconscious help of academia, to group and divide, to justify its own actions. The problem, in the end, remains not just how to make people remember, but how to make them care. The Paris Massacre might have sparked an academic debate, but it seems to have been forgotten again, just as easily as it was remembered.
Image Credit: The Guardian