French historians have accused the president, Emmanuel Macron, of failing to fully admit the state’s responsibility in the police killing of scores of Algerians at peaceful protests 60 years ago.
Furthermore, they have called on authorities to make the historical archives fully available for researchers, to allow them to investigate mass killings that even today remain shrouded in official secrecy.
The Elysée’s statement on Sunday that the police actions on 17 October 1961 were “inexcusable crimes for the republic” and “brutal, violent and bloody” has brought criticism from all sides.
It disappointed those who had hoped for an outright apology for the police attacks, which included throwing protesters into the River Seine, where they drowned, while the far right accused the president of buying into “anti-French propaganda”.
Olivier Le Cour Grandmaison, the president of the association 17 October 1961: Against Forgetting and a professor of political science, said the French president’s statement was “a small step that allows Emmanuel Macron not to make a bigger one”.
“It falls far short of what we were entitled to expect,” Le Cour Grandmaison said.
On 17 October 1961, about 30,000 Algerians gathered in Paris to protest against a discriminatory curfew the authorities had imposed on them. The then Paris police chief, Maurice Papon, a former Nazi collaborator, ordered officers to crack down on protesters. Police then shot at them and herded panicked crowds onto bridges over the Seine, throwing people into the river. Historians say between 50 and 120 were killed, while Algeria has said the death toll could be as high as 300.
“To believe, or only to make believe for a moment, that Maurice Papon was able to act throughout the month of October 1961, and on 17 October in particular, on his own initiative and that the responsibility for the massacre of Algerian demonstrators does not lie with the prime minister and therefore the whole government, is a bad take,” Le Cour Grandmaison told France 24 television.
Gilles Manceron, a historian specialising in France’s colonial history, agreed Macron’s declaration did not go far enough. “It was a state crime, not a crime by the prefect,” Manceron said.
The French president, who laid a wreath in memory of the victims at the weekend, is the first to officially recognise that the police committed “crimes” that night, though he made no official speech and a statement issued by the Elysée stopped short of an apology.
Benjamin Stora, a historian and author of a report on French colonialism and the Algerian war submitted to the Elysée in January, defended Macron, saying he had made a step forward.
“It’s the first time a head of state has used the word ‘crime’ and associated it with the state and therefore with the republic,” Stora told France Inter.