On October 17, 1961, the first mass demonstration of the 1960s occurred, organized by the FLN to protest a recent curfew set by the prefect of police that prohibited Algerians in the Paris region from being on the street after 8:30 PM. Informed in advance of the demonstration, the police, along with the CRS and the mobile gendarmerie, are armed with bidules, a longer version of the matraque with greater leverage and range, capable of breaking a skull open in a single swing when adroitly applied. The police have also been virtually exonerated in advance of any “police excesses” that might occur; in the preceding weeks Papon has visited the various commissariats, imparting these messages: “Settle your affairs with the Algerian yourselves. Whatever happens, you’re covered,” and “For one blow, give then back ten.” And, to overcome the scruples of certain more hesitant members of his forces, he adds: “You don’t need to complicate things. Even if the Algerians are not armed, you should think of them always as armed.”
The Algerians – between thirty and forty-thousand men, women and children – are, in fact, unarmed, and the demonstration is peaceful. Many of the Algerians are wearing their best “Sunday” clothes, in the interest of impressing the French and the international communities with their peaceful motives. Nevertheless, police open fire almost immediately. Confrontations occur simultaneously throughout the city wherever the Algerians are concentrated. Police “combat groups” charge the crowd in the main thoroughfares and boulevards, while other police ranks stand behind in the side streets, blocking escape routes and splitting the crowd into small pockets of two or three individuals, each of whom is then surrounded by police, and men and women are methodically clubbed. Along the Seine, police lift unconscious and already dead or dying Algerians and toss them into the river. A document published soon after the massacre by a group of progressive police describes what went on in one part of the city:
At one end of the Neuilly Bridge, police troops, and on the other, CRS riot police, slowly moved toward one another. All the Algerians caught in this immense trap were struck down and systematically thrown into the Seine. At least a hundred of them underwent this treatment. The bodies of the victims floated to the surface daily and bore traces of blows and strangulation.Some of the arrested men and women are taken to the courtyard of the prefecture of police where, as Pierre Vidal-Baquet reports, “If I believe the testimony of one policeman, gathered immediately after the event by Paul Thibaud and that I’ve often had occasion to evoke since then, Papon had several dozen Algerians beaten [matraqué] to death in front of his eyes in the courtyard of the police prefecture.” Some six thousand others are taken to several sports stadiums reserved by police for that purpose. In all of these places, people die while in custody – of wounds they had already received or of new blows administered by police “welcoming committees” arranged in a kind of gauntlet outside the entrance to the sports arenas.
On the night of October 17, the police publish a communiqué stating that the Algerians had fired on police, who were then forced to return fire. The official death count, originally two, was revised the next morning by Papon’s office to three. The almost total news blackout that surrounded the event makes it very hard to determine the exact number of Algerians – for no police were injured – who actually died. Most knowledgeable estimates put the number at around two hundred.
- Kristen Ross, May ’68 and Its Afterlives