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Macron condemns 1961 protest massacre

October 16, 2021

French President Emmanuel Macron has called the police killings of pro-Algerian demonstrators in Paris 60 years ago "crimes." But a formal apology was not forthcoming.

Emmanuel Macron lays a wreath
Macron is the first French head of state to attend a memorial of the massacreImage: Rafael Yaghobzadeh/AP Photo/picture alliance

French President Emmanuel Macron on Saturday voiced strong condemnation of a 1961 police massacre of protesters calling for the independence of Algeria, then a French colony.

A statement issued by his office shortly after a memorial ceremony to mark 60 years since the killings said Macron "recognized the facts: that the crimes committed that night under Maurice Papon [the then police chief — Editor's note] are inexcusable for the Republic." Macron attended the ceremony but made no public speech there.

Although falling short of a formal apology, Macron's words went further than those of his predecessor, Francois Hollande, who acknowledged in 2012 only that the protesting Algerians had been "killed during a bloody repression."

Macron is now the first French head of state to have participated in commemorations of the massacre, alongside survivors, civil society activists and veterans of Algeria's struggle for independence. He stood solemnly as a wreath of flowers adorned with a ribbon in the colors of the French Republic was placed by the Seine River on the Bezons Bridge.

Flowers in memory of the victims were dropped into the river by people who gathered to mark the day — a number of the protesters who died were reported to have drowned. Macron shook hands and spoke with members of the community afterward.

Black-and-white photo showing several people crouched on the ground, hands on their heads
Many demonstrators were also arrested at the peaceful rally in 1961Image: AFP/Getty Images

A dark day in French history

The protests on October 17, 1961, came in the final year of France's violent effort to retain control of its then colony of Algeria.

They were in response to a strict curfew on Algerians to prevent the underground FLN resistance movement from fundraising after a series of deadly attacks on French police officers.

More than 25,000 gathered in Paris in protest of French actions in Algeria despite the ban. Some 12,000 Algerians were arrested at the protests and taken to various stadiums.

Black-and-white photo showing police with batons standing over protesters lying on the ground
Police showed great brutality in dispersing the protestImage: AFP/Getty Images

It is unknown how many were murdered at the protest that night, but the historical consensus is that the toll ran at least into the dozens — despite the original official toll of just three. Some activists fear several hundred could have been killed, including demonstrators whom police threw into the Seine, where they drowned. Others were beaten to death or fatally shot.

The events of October 17 kicked off a cycle of violence lasting weeks. For decades, the atrocities were covered up. Many of the victims' remains have never been found.

Papon, the Paris police chief, was later revealed to have been a Nazi collaborator during World War II, which added further shame to the events of that day.

ar, tj/csb (AFP, dpa)