A traumatic event in the life of a friend of mine occurred in October 1961, when she was visiting Paris. At that time, the Algerian War of Independence was going full blast, with some violence spilling over into France itself. On Oct. 17, supporters of the FLN, the Algerian independence movement, organized a peaceful protest in downtown Paris. But the Paris police chief, Maurice Papon, had forbidden the demonstration, and set his police on the demonstrators like a pack of wild dogs. My friend witnessed some of the repression. Nobody knows how many were killed because from that day to this, the French government has not published the data. It may have been as many as 300. Some were herded into the courtyard of police headquarters and clubbed to death there; others were knocked unconscious and thrown into the Seine to drown.
Yesterday, the 51st anniversary of the "Paris Massacre," French President Francoise Hollande issued a short statement acknowledging this atrocity:
"On 17 October 1961, Algerians who were protesting for independence were killed in a bloody repression. The Republic recognizes these facts with lucidity. I pay homage to victims 51 years later."
The French right and ultra-right were quick to denounce this muted and long overdue action. This reaction came, as one might expect, from the far right, anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant National Front leader Marine LePen (who implied that the 1961 massacre never happened), but also from former French Prime Minister Francois Fillon, of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP Party. Fillon said he was "shocked" by Hollande's statement, which he said was inappropriate from the mouth of the head of state, and asked why atrocities perpetrated by Algerian nationalists were not also denounced.
In Le Pen's case, the reaction was logical. Her father, National Front founder Jean Marie LePen, was involved with the events that led to the 1961 massacre. He has been accused of atrocities in the Algerian independence war, and in 1961 was already a young right-wing member of parliament who was agitating for repression. But that the "respectable right," as exemplified by Fillon, should also to be aggressively denialist might surprise some.
The Paris Police Chief in 1961, Maurice Papon (1910 - 2007), had been a major collaborator with the Vichy regime that had taken power in France after its defeat by Hitler's Germany at the beginning of the Second World War. It was later revealed that he had been heavily implicated in the rounding up and deportation, to their deaths, of at least 1,600 members of France's Jewish population. This information must have been known to post-war French government leaders, including de Gualle, but it did not stop Papon from being named, in 1949, to the position of Chief of Police of the Constantine District in Algeria, then a French colony, where he gained a reputation as a brutal thug and torturer. In spite of this reputation he was appointed prefect of the Paris Police in 1958. One theory is that his anti-communism served him well in covering up his collaborationist past. .
The 1961 events were not Papon's last excursion into atrocity-land. In 1962, he did a repeat performance, this time massacring nine trade union demonstrators, most of them members of the French Communist Party, at the Charonne Metro Station, evidently to suppress a demonstration against the fascist "Secret Army Organization." But Papon lost his job in 1965 after he was implicated in the disappearance of the Moroccan revolutionary leader Mehdi Ben-Barka.
Nevertheless, subsequent right-wing French governments continued to employ Papon.
Finally, he was denounced, tried, convicted in 1998 and sentenced to prison for his wartime activities against the Jews. He was released for health reasons and died in 2002.
President Hollande took advantage of a coming visit to Algeria to issue his statement recognizing the 1961 massacre. The Algerian government, in turn, expressed its appreciation, but some in France called for acts beyond the mere recognition of the crime. French Communist Party Secretary Pierre Laurent said, "This is a victory for all the anti-colonialist fighters and a blow against all who today seek to rehabilitate the supposed benefits of colonialism." But Laurent demanded the opening of all government archives about the 1961 incident.
The bad reaction by the UMP's Fillon and others is based in the fact that the line between the right, as represented by his party and by ex-President Sarkozy, and the ultra-right, as represented by the LePens, father and daughter, is not as clear as some suppose. Papon was shielded, fostered and promoted by "respectable" French government leaders, including the much revered Charles de Gaulle, without whose help and support he would never had been able to get into a position to do anyone more harm; indeed, he might have ended up facing the death penalty like other Vichy-era collaborators such as ex-Prime Minister Pierre Laval.
There is a lesson for us in the United States in this also: There is not such a huge difference between "respectable conservative" politicians such as Mitt Romney, and our own equivalents of Maurice Papon and the LePens. The one hand washes the other.
Photo: French President Francois Hollande, of the Socialist Party, speaking earlier this year at a celebration marking the anniversary of the end of slavery. Photo Benjamin Géminel.