Monday 27 June 2022

The Bloody History of the City of Love


The perception of Paris as a city of romance and high fashion may be little more than the result of a sustained and very successful PR campaign. The reality is that, from the Place du Concorde (where the guillotine was raised during the revolution of 1789) to the south-west wall of Pere Lachaise cemetery (against which many of the communards of 1871 were executed by firing squad), the streets of Paris are not just tinged with the rosy red glow of romance, but are also drenched with the blood of countless generations of rebels.
The number of buildings you see dotted around the city that now carry memorial plaques listing every resident arrested and sent to concentration camps during the collaborationist Vichy regime of WW2 is indeed a sobering sight for any visitor to the city. 
Most people alive today will recall the recent ISIS-inspired atrocities carried out at the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and music venues like the one close to the Place du Bastille that shocked the world in 2015.
In 2018 and into 2019 the streets of Paris, especially around the Place de la Republique, as well as many other towns and cities around the country, exploded in popular protest organised by the "gilets jaunes" (yellow vests), essentially fuel protests which saw some extreme instances of police brutality. The streets were drenched in tear gas and some protestors were partially blinded by rubber bullets.

The French are good at preserving their heritage. The Cafe du Croissant, at 146 rue Montmartre in northern Paris, is where the socialist politician and anti-war activist Jean Jaures was assassinated on July 31 1914 by a nationalist. Both the cafe where he was murdered and the newspaper he founded (l'humanite) still exist to this day.
Paris is also the city where one of the leading Moroccan opposition politicians, an anti-colonial activist named Mehdi Ben Barka, was disappeared after speaking to a couple of gendarmes outside Brasserie Lipp (still there) and murdered on 29 October 1965 for his key role in the anti-colonial struggle both in Morocco and the wider Arab world. Details of his murder remain largely classified, and speculation about the involvement of Moroccan, Israeli and US intelligence in his murder is still rife.
Another atrocity of the same period that is rarely discussed in the west, and has only recently been subjected to more rigorous historical analysis, occurred towards the end of the Algerian war of independence. It is an event that will make you look at the waters of the Seine in a whole new light, and may also provide a deeper insight into contemporary Islamophobia in France.

Documentaries about the 17 October 1961 atrocity

17 octobre 1961, un crime d'Etat (dir. Ramdane Rahmouni; 2021)

This is a recent 51 minute documentary (in French with Arabic subtitles) in which historians, activists and witnesses describe the massacre of Algerian protestors that took place in Paris, France. Conservative estimates suggest at least 200 people were thrown from the Pont Saint-Michel into the Seine. For Algerians it is regarded as a “colonial crime”, which was carried out by French police in order to silence Algerian voices during the final stages of the liberation war. It can be viewed here:

Octobre à Paris (October in Paris) (dir. Jacques Panijel; France; 1962)

One of the first detailed accounts of the atrocity, the distribution of this film was suppressed by the French authorities until 1973, when it was granted a limited “visa d'exploitation”, and it would have to wait until 2011 to receive a full theatrical release. Other films have been made about this dark and bloody phase of modern French history, including:

Le silence du fleuve (The silence of the river) (dir. Mehdi Lallaoui; 1991), and

Ici on noie les Algeriens (Here we drown the Algerians) (dir. Yasmina Adi; France; 2011).


Jean-Luc Einaudi was a French historian and socialist activist. He remains largely unknown in the English-speaking world (try searching for an English translation of any of his books). Much of his work was devoted to extensively researching the events of 17 October, as well as other crimes and abuses committed by the French authorities in their efforts to put down local support for the Algerian independence struggle. A couple of his books are cited below:

Einaudi, Jean-Luc La bataille de Paris, 17 octobre 1961 (Seuil, 1991)

Einaudi, Jean-Luc Le dossier Younsi. 1962 : procès secret d'un chef FLN en France (Tirésias, 2013)

This article is a draft. Let me know in the comments below how much of the history mentioned above you were aware of. Personally, I only became aware of the events of October 1961 from Arab commentators and Arabic (specifically Algerian) media, so I would be very interested to hear other peoples' experiences.

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