In 1961, when a group of Muslim protestors marched against a controversial government-imposed curfew, the police responded — by beating them to death, then dumping their bodies in the Seine.
They emerged into the night from Metro stations across Paris. They alighted from commuter buses along the city’s fringes. Men in sport coats and ties. Women in long coats, in short skirts, in headscarves. Old men in berets. Young children, barelegged, on parents’ shoulders. Some were linked arm-in-arm. Some carried signs. Some chanted as they marched down the streets in what was to be a peaceful protest.
October 17, 1961 was a chilly night, a quarter moon hiding behind gathering clouds. Dark skies threatened rain. “If I come back, so be it,” one man told his wife, sensing the danger that awaited as he headed out, in defiance of the law, to join fellow Algerians on the streets. “If not, goodbye.”
Like many others, he did not come back, but his widow would share his tale decades later in Ici On Noie Les Algeriens, a 2011 documentary about the incident by French director Yasmina Adi. What would happen on this night would recall France’s darkest days under Nazi occupation in World War II. Even worse, it would be forgotten. More than fifty years later, the incident is barely recognized in France’s history textbooks, but it serves as a reminder of how deep ethnic rivalries can run in France, and that blood flows on both sides.
By 1961, animosities had been growing for four decades. While expatriate writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald were wearing out the wicker chairs at Left Bank cafes in the ’20s, another group of foreigners was moving in to the Right Bank. Immigrants from France’s colony in Algeria were welcomed into France, which sought workers to replace the 1.3 million Frenchmen killed in World War I. They labored in Marseilles ports, Vincennes weapons factories and automobile plants in Parisian suburbs, toiling alongside immigrants who came from other European nations, like Italy and Belgium, whose economies had been shattered by the war.
After World War II, the government called for workers again, and more Algerians arrived. They settled in places like the Goutte d’Or in Paris’s 18th Arrondissement, a once-rural enclave called the “drop of gold” for the cheap white wine it once had made. Streets lined today with cell phone businesses and North African travel agencies were then Algerian cafes and shops.
By 1961, Algeria’s war for independence had transformed into a campaign of urban guerilla warfare, and the violence had spilled over into France. From August to October, the Algerian Front de Libération Nationale killed some twenty police officers in Paris and the surrounding areas. Right-wing militants also rose up. In June, as the No. 12 express train from Strasbourg to Paris passed the village of Vitry-le-François, a bomb placed by anti-Algerian militants blasted the train off the tracks, killing 28 and injuring more than a hundred. It remained the deadliest terrorist attack in modern France until the coordinated attacks on November 13, 2015 killed 130 people.
In an effort to stop the violence, the Paris police instituted a curfew that closed all Algerian bars at 7:30 p.m., and barred “Muslim Algerian workers” from the streets after 8:30. Those who had to work at night were permitted out but were barred from congregating. When the thirty thousand marchers took to the streets of Paris on October 17, it was to protest that curfew. On the bridge over the Seine, known as the Pont Saint-Michel, and at other locations throughout the city, they would be stopped, attacked and slaughtered.
Named for the Bible’s avenging archangel, the Pont Saint-Michel crosses from the Left Bank to the police prefecture on the Île de la Cité, the island where Paris was born. Between its white arches is carved an “N” surrounded by a wreath in honor of the emperor Napoleon III, who had it built as he transformed medieval Paris into the city we know today.
At one end of the bridge, a plaque bears this message: “In memory of the numerous Algerians killed during the bloody suppression of the peaceful demonstration on 17 October, 1961.” The language is intentionally ambiguous, because no one knows for sure how many Algerians died that night.
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The curfew was the latest in an ever-tightening grip imposed on Paris by Police Prefect Maurice Papon. Papon, 51, was tall and lean, as starched as his dark uniform, with chiseled features that, seen today, resemble Vladimir Putin’s. His face was narrow and severe, with dark, heavy eyebrows and graying hair retreating from his forehead.
Papon had arrived in Paris three years earlier after serving in colonial Algeria and Morocco. He was known for ruling with an iron hand, and he brought that approach to Paris, where he was called in to bring order to a police department that felt besieged by North Africans. His mission was to “hold the city,” and under his watch, police brutality and torture became routine. One Paris politician called him “one of the most ferocious artisans of the repressions.”
No one then knew the sinister beginnings of his career. It would be twenty years later when an historian uncovered documents revealing that, as a young man, Papon served France’s Nazi occupiers in Bordeaux, where he led efforts to round up Jews by the hundreds and send them to concentration camps. When the Algerians began fighting for independence, Papon found ample use for the skills he had learned under the Nazis.
When Papon arrived in Paris in 1958, he pledged to strike back against Algerian militants and their increasingly violent attacks against police. “For every blow received,” he declared at a funeral for slain officers, “we will administer ten blows!”
Papon ordered massive roundups of Algerians. He created detention centers at places like the Vélodrome d’Hiver – places that, during the Nazi Occupation, had been used as detention centers for Jews bound for Auschwitz. He created auxiliary police squads and filled them with harkis – pro-French Algerians with a reputation for violence. Interrogation centers opened in buildings throughout the Right Bank. Neighbors, writes historian Sophie Nellis, complained of screams issuing from their basements.
“Under the responsibility of Maurice Papon, torture installed itself in Paris,” according to historian Jean-Luc Einaudi.
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Against this crackdown, the FLN, which had targeted French police in bloody attacks for years, called for a peaceful protest. Organizers urged marchers to break the curfew and fill the streets. To come as families. To leave their weapons behind.
“We went out,” one woman told Adi. “Our brothers went out to get the curfew lifted so we could live in peace.”
Protesters appeared throughout the city. They gathered at the Concorde and the Place de l’Etoile. They marched along the Boulevard Saint-Michel, where as a young man, Hemingway wrote at a quiet café and strolled along the river to take comfort among what he called “the people of the Seine” – the bouquinistes who sold used books from metal stands along the banks.
“I could never be lonely along the river,” he wrote.
At the corner of Boulevard Saint-Germain and Rue de Lille, in the shadow of the National Assembly, the staff of the socialist weekly Démocratie 61 was preparing the latest edition. On the streets below, they heard the protesters advancing. The staffers took a break and watched as marchers gathered in hushed tones below. The demonstrators came dressed in their finest, as if going to a wedding. They strode in unison toward the Seine, “chanting quietly the slogans that summed up their reasons for being in the streets,” wrote Démocratie 61’s Pierre Berger.
“Algeria for Algerians!” they shouted.
Police stood at the end of the street, blocking their passage. They wielded nightsticks and shields. Rifles hung ready at their shoulders. As protesters filled the streets, false rumors swirled on police radio bands that marchers had fired on officers. The police were ready for violence, and Papon had promised them that there would be no repercussions. He viewed the protestors as a “malevolent monster” bent on starting a “murderous riot.”
“You will be covered, I give you my word on that,” he had said a few days earlier, one police officer later recalled, according to police union archives. “Besides, when you advise headquarters that a North African is down, the officer in charge who will come to the crime scene will have everything necessary to make sure the North African has a weapon on him, because in the current state of affairs, there can be no mistakes.”
Rain started to fall as the marchers approached. The Algerians’ coats dampened and darkened. Raindrops pinged on the helmets of riot police. Rivulets dripped down their shields. Shutters in the apartments above slapped shut.
“The charge that followed was brief,” wrote Berger, who watched from the office window.
When the protesters met the police, the officers descended on them with batons and rifle butts. When their shields shattered, police attacked the crowd with the broken shards. Attempting to flee, protesters crashed through the glass display windows of the shops along the street. The sidewalks darkened with blood and rain.
It was a “scene of gratuitous and futile violence,” Berger wrote. “The forces of order pinned the protesters against the wall. Then they hit them with their fists, their sticks and they kicked them as well. The police agents had their revolvers ready. One fired his gun.”
The crowd at the Place Saint-Michel fled, screaming, blood spilling from their faces. Slipping on damp cobblestones, they trampled one another as police pursued them. “The ground was littered with bodies. Shoes. Watches,” a woman recalled. One man watched in horror as police threw three marchers into the Seine. As one man clung to the edge of the bridge, police beat his arms and head until he dropped into the current. At the Place Saint-Sulpice, below the towers of Paris’ second-largest church, police fired a machine gun and revolvers into the crowd, according to historians Jim House and Neil MacMaster in their book Paris 1961: Algerians, State Terror and Memory.
Scenes like this were playing out across the city. Some 8,400 officers, regular police and riot police, attacked. Police clubbed crowds as they emerged from Metro stops. The owner of the Rex Cinéma, slammed shut the front grill as riot squads fell upon protesters marching toward the Ópera. Grainy film footage shows helmeted officers hoisting truncheons overhead and crashing them down on crowds of stunned protesters. Police called these beatings ratonnades, from the French word for young rats. A doctor was knocked unconscious when he tried to attend to one of the wounded. Police fired into the crowds.
“I found myself face-to-face with the well-armed enemy,” one Front de Libération Nationale militant recounted, according to House and MacMaster. “In the fight, a brother close to me was killed, another wounded in the stomach and me in the left shoulder by a bullet from a submachine gun.”
Police rounded up the protesters in front of the theater and stacked corpses, their bleeding bodies barely covered by white sheets, below the glowing marquee lights that announced “HORIZON SANS FRONTIERS,” the translation of the Robert Mitchum drama The Sundowners.
As protesters arriving from the outskirts of the city reached Neuilly Bridge, they found themselves pinned by officers on either side, House and MacMaster write. Police shot them and threw them, living and dead, into the Seine. A harki (Muslim Algerian loyalist who fought on the side of the French) drilled the crowd with machine gun fire. Hearing screams and gunshots in the distance, approaching protesters fled, splitting up and taking to back streets to try to avoid the police.
“‘Run!’ they said. ‘The police are killing people and throwing them in the Seine! Run!’” one woman recalled in Ici On Noie Les Algeriens.
They ran. Some had bleeding heads. Some lost their shoes. Officers “hunted and shot at anything that moved,” Raoul Letard, a police officer at the scene, recalled 37 years later, speaking to France’s Institute for Studies on National Defense. “We were waging war, and our adversary had been named as the Algerians.”
Police dragged protesters from hiding places beneath cars. They cornered them on subway trains and Metro stations, where they lined them up, hands behind their heads, against the subterranean walls. News photographers were turned away. “Allow no photos,” police were instructed. “No photos of the police that could reflect badly on us.” Some photos emerged, anyway, of men bleeding from head wounds or clutching a shoulder in agony. They tracked them into the suburbs. At Pont d’Asnières, where the Seine loops north and west of the city, House and MacMaster write, one policeman described a passenger bus stopping so the driver and passengers could help officers hurl Algerians into the river.
Police loaded survivors onto packed paddy wagons, public buses and taxicabs, where the beatings often continued. “Many of the buses had to be thoroughly cleaned to remove the blood of the protesters they had carried,” wrote Texas A&M historian Richard J. Golsan, in his book Vichy’s Afterlife: History and Counterhistory in Postwar France.
Authorities hauled off 11,720 Algerians to detention centers – “welcome centers,” as Papon called them, where the brutality continued. They faced gauntlets of officers, called “reception committees,” House and MacMaster write. The captured walked a double-line of policemen “armed with every conceivable weapon,” they wrote, “who tripped them up, showering down blows and kicks.”
One witness, part of a detachment of military conscripts brought in as medical orderlies and aides, described the scene in a police file the two historians examined: “The Algerians had fifteen to twenty meters to cross over, hands on their heads under a hail of blows from truncheons, bludgeons, gun butts. Those who fell exhausted on the concrete were rewarded with kicks in the stomach, the groin and the face.”
At the Palais des Sports, detainees were beaten and killed as they were escorted to the toilet. Corpses were stacked in storage rooms. “Do something! Stop this slaughter!” one conscript pleaded to a police superintendent, according to Einaudi, but the officer ignored him. Soon, the detainees were moved out to make way for a Ray Charles concert.
In the courtyard of the police prefecture, Golsan wrote, protesters were beaten, strangled with ropes and brake cables, their bodies, living and dead, thrown into the river by the Pont Saint-Michel.
“Liquidate this vermin for me, these dirty rats!” once prisoner recalled Papon shouting.
As the violence unfolded in the detention centers, police squads roamed immigrant neighborhoods and continued the slaughter over the ensuing days. Arrested at bus stops and cafes, Algerians were beaten and thrown into the Seine. More Algerians may have died at the hands of these death squads, House and MacMaster write, than were killed during the demonstration.
“The raids, violence and drownings would be continued over the following days,” Einaudi wrote. “For several weeks, unidentified corpses were discovered along the banks of the river.”
The official report listed two Algerians and one European protester dead. Estimates later put the number around two hundred.
Initially, the public supported the police, but gradually, details emerged that painted a picture of a peaceful protest turned into a police massacre. Pressed by a municipal councilman for an exact accounting of the deaths, Papon refused to answer. “The Parisian police simply did what it had to do,” he said.
Two weeks later, a group of officers anonymously published details of what they had witnessed. “Torturers threw their victims by tens in the Seine … to keep them from being examined by the forensic scientists,” they wrote, “(but) not before having taken their watches and money.”
Graffiti that appeared along the Seine described the night more bluntly. “ICI ON NOIE LES ALGERIENS,” it said. Here we drown Algerians.
Soon the public’s attention faded and moved elsewhere. A month later, Papon declared, “We have won the battle of Paris!” President Charles de Gaulle awarded him the Legion of Honor. The incident was forgotten – wiped from Parisians’ memory – for decades.
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In 1981, when Papon was serving as France’s budget minister, his secret past came to light. The French satirical newspaper Le Canard enchaîné exposed documents for the first time showing that during World War II, Papon had served as supervisor of the Service for Jewish Questions under the Vichy regime in Bordeaux where he was responsible for deporting Jews into Nazi hands, sending most of them to their deaths.
The revelation triggered a 15-year-long legal battle that put Papon on trial for crimes against humanity – charges he fought to the end. The trial was focused on Papon’s role in the Holocaust, but when historian Jean-Luc Einaudi took the stand, Papon’s part in the 1961 massacre came to light. Einaudi had written about it in his 1991 book La Bataille de Paris, but it wasn’t until he testified against Papon that the extent of violence that night became widely known.
“There was a convergence of interests to maintain a silence, a forgetfulness, a willful ignorance about this issue,” Einaudi told the TV station France 24 in 2012.
No charges were ever brought against Papon or the police for their role in the killings. A general amnesty, passed in 1968, forgives crimes committed during the Algerian War. Papon was, however, convicted of ordering the arrest and deportation of 1,560 Jews during World War II. At the age of 89, he was sentenced to ten years in prison. He fled to Switzerland, but authorities caught him and returned him to Paris where they locked him up in a prison complex the Gestapo had used to imprison, torture and kill French Resistance fighters in World War II. After three years, Papon was released due to ill health. He died after heart surgery in 2007 at the age of 96.
On October 17, 1997, the first commemoration of the 1961 massacre was held at Pont Saint-Michel. Four years later, on the fortieth anniversary, Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë unveiled the plaque officially recognizing the massacre.
“There are parts of Paris’s history which areq painful, but which have to be talked about and which have to be accompanied by acts,” he said after the ceremony. It was a controversial move, criticized on the Right for stoking old resentments, and on the Left for failing to fully acknowledge the extent of the bloodshed. When François Hollande was elected in 2012, he became the first French president to recognize the atrocities of that night.
Ceremonies continue on the anniversary of the massacre. Survivors and family members gather with photographs and flowers. They stand on the bridge, watch the dark waters flow below and remember the bodies that once tumbled into the Seine and floated past, hidden beneath the surface, long forgotten.