“It’s When There Are a Lot of Them That There Are Problems”

The sorrow and outrage provoked by the attacks on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were underwritten by an all-too-familiar grand narrative: These were not the cowardly misdeeds of a group ...

The sorrow and outrage provoked by the attacks on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were underwritten by an all-too-familiar grand narrative: These were not the cowardly misdeeds of a group of disaffected and delusional youth; this was another instantiation of a primeval war of civilizations extending far beyond the Île-de-France. Accordingly, grandiose statements about the ultimate supremacy of “free speech” over “fundamentalism,” secular Western reason over irrational Islamist hysteria, emanated from all corners. The few contrarians who dared to question this appraisal, as Saree Makdisi did in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, faced a volley of hateful digital spite.1 Suddenly a publication that few outside of France had even heard of became a standard bearer of the Enlightenment, the dead journalists and staffers martyrs for the Republic. Rousing renditions of La Marseillaise at the solidarity protests attended by millions only confirmed the ideological mantra underpinning the mourning: the pencil really is mightier than the scimitar.

Comforting as this grand narrative may be, one undeniable and patently obvious fact has gone missing from the discussion: Islamists are not the only ones willing to commit murder as vengeance for crimes of representation. While myriad examples from all corners of the globe come to mind, one seems particularly germane since it took place only footsteps away from the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Not only does the largely forgotten story of the “dark night” of October 17, 1961 in the city of Lumière—“the bloodiest act of state repression of street protest in Western Europe in modern history”2—upend the warm and fuzzy clichés of baguettes, brie, and Bordeaux wines that dominate the Anglo-American imagination of France, it also should give us pause when we congratulate ourselves for the “freedoms” that “we” supposedly cherish.

On that mid-autumn evening, tens of thousands of Paris’s sizable Algerian community defied a police curfew specifically targeted at “Muslim Algerian workers” and took to the streets. They demanded the end of the illegal restrictions on their movement and France’s colonial occupation of their homeland, which by that time had reached its fourteenth decade.3 By the end of the night, anywhere between 50 and 200 protesters were dead—a precise figure is impossible to tabulate4—and more would succumb to injuries sustained during the protest and in the various actions that took place in the subsequent days. Over 14,000 were arrested and ferried on public buses to mass detention centers erected in stadiums and other public venues, where they were subjected to more violence for days.5 Remarkably, the mass incarceration of thousands did not disrupt city life too much. Those held at the Palais des Sports were later moved in time for a series of concerts by jazz legend Ray Charles.

Among the most shocking details that emerged in the aftermath of the protest were accounts of violent confrontations on city bridges. A large portion of the protesters lived on the outskirts of town, so with public transport into the city halted, many proceeded on foot to the points of convergence in the city center. Consequently, the police knew precisely where large columns of protesters would crossover the Seine. On the bridge connecting the western suburbs of Neuilly and Nanterre, the police unleashed a ferocious wave of violence using an array of tools: guns, bludgeons, steel pipes, and pickaxe handles. As causalities mounted, the police began throwing the dead and injured into the icy waters below. This was no aberration on the part of one group of officers; the sound of bodies splashing into the famed river (not to mention the screams that preceded them) could be heard all over Paris that night.

Police brutality against Algerians was certainly not new, but why did the violence reach such heights of barbarity that night? The answer requires an understanding of the complex historical and political circumstances that set the stage for the tragedy.


Bring the War Home


What distinguishes the Algerian war of liberation from other anti-colonial struggles is the extent to which the imperial metropolis became a front line of the conflict. Paris, home to the second largest urban population of Algerians anywhere in the world, was a key operating and fundraising base for the central nationalist umbrella organization, the National Liberation Movement (FLN). After emerging victorious from a bloody conflict with the rival Algerian National Movement, the FLN governed the Algerian community in Paris with totalizing force and control. One of the benefits of this unchallenged hegemony was that it made these neighborhoods more resistant to police infiltration. Partly in response to the growing threat posed by the nationalists, the French government appointed Maurice Papon as the Prefect of Police in March 1958. Papon was a career civil servant who worked in different parts of the French colonial empire, most recently Algeria. Barely a few months into his tenure, he deployed in the French metropolis many of the same techniques he had used against the nationalists in the colony. Identity checks, unprovoked beatings, forced deportation, and even torture became standard tactics in the police repertoire. The psychological terror inflicted on the general population was supposed to foster resentment for the nationalist cause and disrupt their fundraising. More importantly, the “Papon system” extracted valuable information from an otherwise invisible population. Street-level operations rounded up groups of men, a portion of whom would be taken to a detention center erected specifically for Algerians in the eastern suburb of Vincennes.

How the FLN responded to this intensified pressure raised the stakes of the Parisian theater. In August 1958, the police suffered the first of many attacks at the hands of specially-trained FLN commando units. In the next three years, forty-seven police officers would lose their lives in this way. Papon refused to back down, and in 1961 intensified the tactics, particularly the use of deportation to Algeria to strike fear into the community. In turn, the FLN pushed back with deadlier attacks, especially in the weeks leading up to the protests: between late August and early October, 13 police officers were killed. The violence created an atmosphere of anxiety among the rank and file and gave Papon the necessary political capital to institute the curfew, a blatant violation of the country’s constitution. The protest against the curfew therefore afforded the police the perfect opportunity to send a message to the nationalists through a strong show of force—seemingly encouraged by Papon’s pronouncement in early October at a police funeral that “for every blow received, we will render ten.”


Memories for Forgetfulness?


Although this “dark night”6 was years in the making, it would take only few months for the story to recede from the French public sphere. A number of factors contributed to this rapid erasure. Some parts of the mainstream press disseminated the fictitious narrative provided by the police, while those reports that that delved too deeply into the gory details were banned outright.7 Another deadly, albeit smaller massacre at a protest a few months later help marginalize the events of October as well, partly because it was organized by unionists and French communists.8 It would be nearly a quarter of a century before the violence of October 1961 attracted serious attention for the first time, followed in 1998 by the first official acknowledgment of the massacre by the French state. A mishmash of scholarly studies, novels, musical works, films, and plaques have proliferated since, and the controversies these memorials have provoked attest to how much this moment in French history remains contested.9

The most iconic attempt to force a reckoning with this tragedy consisted of a single sentence sprawled on the side of a wall adjoining the Quai de Conti—summarily erased within hours by city workers. Luckily, Jean Texier, a thirty-year old photographer and journalist, snapped a photo of the graffito before they could do so.10 Published for the first time in 1985, the image captures both the particular cruelty of this state-sanctioned violence but also the generalized forgetfulness that enveloped it for decades.11


“…a decent burial”


Given the iconic status of the photo, Yasmin Adi’s decision to use the phrase “Here the Algerians Are Drowned” as the title of her powerful and haunting documentary reconstruction of the events of that night is fitting. But the title is more than an allusion to the photograph; it articulates the goal of the documentary itself. Much is made evident in the film’s opening shot of “here,” the shimmering waters of the Seine. The music gives way to the voice an elderly woman recounting in Arabic the loss of her husband and father of her four children. She is sitting in the backseat of a car driving around the Pont de Neuilly, the bridge from which her husband was presumably thrown. Her eyes avoid the camera. She mournfully how “this river swallowed up so many.” Sometimes she speaks to her dead husband. “The enemy put you there,” she tells him. “They put you there, and they left you there. I know you’re there. You’ll be there forever.” But near the end of the scene she addresses the audience, and provides the purpose of the film itself: “Every time I go by this river, I pray to God to let me dive in and find one of his bones, to give it a decent burial.” Adi hems closely to the basic formula of the historical documentary, splicing together an array of archival texts (still images, sound clips, and newsreel footage) with testimonials from witnesses representing different perspectives. Some of the interviewees recount their own memories of the protest, while others relate stories of husbands who never returned. There are also interviews with French (read: white) witnesses narrating a diverse set of experiences, from those who only caught brief glimpses of mass arrests to medical staff who tended to the wounded and dying. Together, the memories paint a gruesome picture of blood, fear, and general helplessness in the face of a police apparatus eager to demonstrate its power.

The early moments of the film focus on life under the curfew. “Nobody could go out,” one woman explains. “Those with evening shifts couldn’t make it work. We couldn’t visit our families. We couldn’t do anything, not even take a sick child to the hospital.” Interestingly, the FLN’s authority over the Algerian community can be heard in the way the interviewees describe being “ordered” to take part in the protest. “We had to get there,” relates one man, “but how?”

The sound clips of French security forces make clear how that the simultaneous movement of tens of thousands of people, including women and children, induced panic among the forces of order. Officers are instructed “to arrest as many as possible before they make it to the various points of convergence, either in the subway, on buses, or on the road and bridges leading into Paris.” Chaos reigns on the streets as the different methods of transport are shut down, and some of the buses and taxis deliver passengers directly to the police. The subway is closed, effectively caging in those en route to the protest. One police captain is heard radioing in about the waves of protesters overwhelming his men on the Pont de Neuilly, describing how they had to be “dispersed with batons, leaving many injured.” Ominously, he concludes with a plea for help: “We are outnumbered. Send backup. Over and out.”

Adi flexes her muscles as a storyteller in the affective tints she adds to the reconstruction of the events. She includes photos that capture the fleeting joys protesters must have experienced defying the curfew, seemingly protected by the sheer mass of their plurality. But the reverie of the multitude gives way quickly to video footage of anxious men escorted by the police with their arms in the air. The blank look of terror on the faces of those waiting in buses are filled in the gruesome details provided by the testimonials. One man recounts how he was part of a group of men forced to lie on top of each other in the middle of the street. As those on the bottom of the pile are crushed, those on the top of the pile are subject to violent beatings: “I felt something warm on my neck,” recounts one elderly man who was lucky enough to be in the middle. “They cracked open the poor guy’s head.”

However macabre their recollections, the interviewees periodically remind viewers that underneath the state sanctioned terror, the spirit of resistance lived on among the Algerians. In the days after the protest, women from the community lead their own marches calling for the release of the thousands of men still in custody. Once again, they are halted en route to the protest. One woman recounts how, after being told by a police officer that she had missed her stop, she fired back: “Save that exit for your mother!” Rewarded for her troubles with a rifle butt to the face, she says, she rose to her feet and continued the confrontation: “Give me that, I know how to use it.” She describes how she was deposited into a holding cell that had been occupied recently by some of her male counterparts, who had scratched messages into the cement. The women used lipstick to draw nationalist flags, “Algeria for the Rebels,” and condemnations of De Gaulle. “We painted that place red. We gave it all we had.”

Towards the conclusion, Adi shifts her focus to the reactions to the violence among the French. Clips of protesters chanting “Liberate the Algerians!” in the days after are juxtaposed with a retired bus driver’s angry and bitter denunciations of his peers who were complicit in the violence, either in their silence or their willingness to do this “dirty work.” “But,” he continues, “it wasn’t limited to buses. In the subway too, there was a veritable darky hunt. All those with brown skin were escorted off the train.” Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir’s participation in solidarity marches also feature in this section of film, although the inclusion of this footage highlights less the importance of those actions than the total absence of the police.

The closing scenes return to the “here” of the film’s title and the underlying goal of the documentary. The camera returns to the dark choppy waters of the Seine, reflecting the artificial lights of Paris at night. The “decent burial” Madame Khalfi has sought for her husband for over five decades has been thwarted, at least according to the film’s postscript. Viewers learn that although his death was officially recognized in a French courtroom in 1989, she was never allowed an opportunity to enter her story into the public record. Viewers also learn that her fruitless search for justice is emblematic of how the French state has handled this history as a whole. 60 judicial investigations into dead or missing protesters were closed due to a lack of evidence, and no charges were filed, since the violence of October 1961 fell under the purview of amnesties implemented after the end of the Algerian War in 1962. This is the same message inscribed into the montage of images and sounds that directly precede the concluding postscript. The waters of the Seine frame a series of newspaper reports of Algerian bodies surfacing in different parts of the city, capped off with an article announcing the Interior Minister’s decision to go back on his promise of opening an investigation.

But in the absence of any real official recognition of these crimes—and, presumably, some form of reparation to the victims or their families—acts of cultural remembrance can pay tribute to this invisible history. The final still image of the film, inserted between the newspaper article about the lack of an inquiry and the postscript, is an image of joyous protesters elegantly dressed in suits, their smiles and raised hands signaling a victory against the curfew. Adi’s use of this photograph, combined with the many examples of resistance among the Algerians and the acts of solidarity by parts of the French population, brings to mind a phrase commonly heard at protests in the Anglophone world. Up against one of the most advanced police forces in the world, the Algerians who took to the streets that night in October 1961 provided an exemplar of “what democracy looks like.”

The extent to which the specter of “darkies” taking to the streets to demand their rights—“riots” according to the mainstream press—still haunts the French state was evident in summer 2009, when Brice Hortefeux, at that time the Interior Minister of Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-wing government, was caught on videotape being a little too honest at a party function. Introduced to a young Arab activist working for his faction—“He’s our little Arab,” someone jocularly adds—Hortefeux announces, “When there’s one, that’s OK. It’s when there are a lot of them that there are problems.”12

  1. Saree Makdisi, “How ‘Je suis Charlie’ makes matters worse,” Los Angeles Times, January 16, 2015.
  2. See Jim House and Neil MacMaster, Paris 1961: Algerians, State Terror, And Memory (Oxford University Press, 2006).
  3. The original wording can be found in Jean-Paul Brunet, Police Contre FLN: Le drame d’octobre 1961 (Flammarion, 1999).
  4. For a detailed examination of the problem of determining the precise number of those killed and injured, see House and MacMaster, Paris 1961, especially chap 6.
  5. The public transport union complained later about buses returning “literally swimming in blood.” Quoted in House and MacMaster, Paris 1961.
  6. This is taken from the title of Alain Tasma’s realist dramatization of the calamitous protest and its prehistory, Nuit noire 17 octobre 1961, broadcast nationally in 2005.
  7. House and MacMaster, p. 156. The lists of banned works included a pamphlet commissioned by the FLN and a film, Jacques Panijel’s Octobre à Paris(1962).
  8. For more on the Charonne Massacre of February 1962 and how the deaths of nine French protesters overshadowed the events of the previous October, see House and MacMaster.
  9. The most in-depth English-language exploration of these issues is found in the second half of House and MacMaster, pp. 183–338.
  10. For an exploration of the origins of the photograph and the curious afterlife it has enjoyed, see Vincent Lemire et Yann Potin, “‘Ici on noie les Algériens.’ Fabriques documentaires, avatars politiques et mémoires partagées d’une icône militante (1961-2001)” Genèses vol. 49, no. 4 (2002).
  11. The 50th anniversary provoked widespread discussion in the mainstream press, exemplified by Ariane Chemin’s essay “Long history of a forgotten massacre” published originally in Le Monde.
  12. See Lizzy David, “French Interior Minister Fined €750 for Racist Comments,” The Guardian, June 4, 2010.
Featured image: Here the Algerians Are Drowned. Photograph by Jean Texier / LHumanite / Keystone