President Emmanuel Macron on Saturday became the first French head of state to take part in commemorations of the massacre by Paris police of protesters at a rally 60 years ago against France’s rule in its then-colony Algeria. He stopped short of issuing a formal apology but said that the deadly crackdown on that day was “inexcusable”.
The events of October 17, 1961 were covered up for decades and the final death toll remains unclear. But many historians believe it could amount to several hundred.
On Saturday, one day ahead of the formal anniversary, Macron took part in a memorial ceremony for the victims at a park on the Paris outskirts. He acknowledged that several dozen protesters had been killed, “their bodies thrown into the River Seine” and paid tribute to the memory of the victims.
The rally was called in the final year of France’s increasingly violent attempt to retain Algeria as a north African colony, and in the middle of a bombing campaign targeting mainland France by pro-independence militants.
The precise number of victims has never been made clear and some activists fear several hundred could have been killed.
While Macron didn’t issue a formal apology for the actions of the Paris police that day, the French presidential office said in a statement that the deadly crackdown was “inexcusable”.
Macron “recognized the facts: that the crimes committed that night under Maurice Papon are inexcusable for the Republic,” the Elysée statement said.
“This tragedy was long hushed-up, denied or concealed,” it added.
The Paris police chief at the time, Maurice Papon, was in the 1980s revealed to have been a collaborator with the occupying Nazis in World War II and complicit in the deportation of Jews. He was convicted of crimes against humanity but later released.
Historian Emmanuel Blanchard told AFP that Macron’s comments represented “progress” and had gone “much further” than those made by Hollande in 2012.
Activists were hoping Macron, the first president born in the post-colonial era, would go further than his predecessor François Hollande, who acknowledged in 2012 that protesting Algerians had been “killed during a bloody repression”.
But he took issue with the decision to pin responsibility on Papon alone, saying that then prime minister Michel Debre and president Charles de Gaulle had not been held to account over the ensuing cover-up or the fact Papon would remain Paris police chief until 1967.
Campaigners want an apology, reparations for the victims or recognition that the repression constituted a state crime.
The 1961 protests were called in response to a strict curfew imposed on Algerians to prevent the underground FLN resistance movement from collecting funds following a spate of deadly attacks on French police officers.
Some of the worst violence occurred on the Saint Michel bridge near the Notre-Dame cathedral where witnesses reported seeing police throwing Algerians into the river Seine where an unknown number drowned.
Ongoing diplomatic row
Macron, who is expected to seek re-election next year, may be wary about provoking a backlash from political opponents or the French police in his comments.
His far-right electoral opponents, nationalists Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour, are outspoken critics of efforts to acknowledge or show repentance for past crimes.
Another complication is an ongoing diplomatic row between Paris and Algiers fuelled by comments attributed to Macron describing the country as ruled by a “political-military system” that had “totally re-written” its history.
A report commissioned by the president from historian Benjamin Stora earlier this year urged a truth commission over the Algerian war but Macron ruled out issuing any official apology.