For the first time since the 1961 massacre of hundreds of unarmed Algerians in Paris, France has officially acknowledged the killings.
In a communiqué published by the Elysee Palace on Wednesday, President Francois Hollande said: “On October 17, 1961, Algerians who were protesting for independence were killed in a bloody repression. The Republic recognises these facts with lucidity. I pay homage to the victims fifty-one years later.”
This official acknowledgement of the killings comes a few weeks before Mr. Hollande travels to Algeria. The North African country won its independence after a brutal war eight year war (1954-1962) in which an estimated million people died. Fifty years later, relations between the two countries remain tense.
Algiers, however, did express its “satisfaction” at the turn of events. Historian Jean-Luc Einaudi, who first documented the killings in his book The Battle for Paris, said the labour of reconciliation could now finally begin.
Until now, the official version has admitted to only two deaths and since documents relating to the incident remain classified, the actual number of victims remains unknown.
The October 17 Paris killings could be compared to India’s Jalianwala Bagh massacre, in which unarmed civilians protesting the colonial presence were mercilessly killed by overzealous colonial officers.
The French equivalent to General Dyer was a Nazi sympathiser called Maurice Papon, the then Prefect of Paris
As the war for independence intensified in Algeria, Mr. Papon imposed a curfew on Algerians living in France. Algerian leaders called on the community to defy the curfew and protest peacefully. On October 17 1961, protesters in Paris were rounded up, indiscriminately beaten and tortured. Several were thrown alive — their hands tied behind their backs — into the river Seine.
Mr. Papon served as a senior civil servant right through the Nazi occupation of France during World War II and into the 60s. For some inexplicable reason, he was shielded by General Charles de Gaulle, France’s legendary post-War President.
In 1998, Maurice Mr. Papon was convicted of crimes against humanity for his participation in the deportation of more than 1600 Jews to concentration camps during World War II, when he was secretary general for police in Bordeaux.
Mr. Hollande’s decision to acknowledge the repression is not without political risk. It has the French Right and extreme-Right frothing at the mouth. The National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen always opposed Algerian independence (he reportedly tortured freedom fighters during the Franco-Algerian war) and his daughter Marine Le Pen, who now presides over the National Front’s fortunes, has also criticized Mr. Hollande.
The parliamentary leader of the rightist Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party, Christian Jacob, said: “It is unacceptable to blame the state police and with them the whole Republic.”
Last July, Algeria celebrated 50 years of independence from France. A hundred and thirty two years of harsh colonial rule and a bloody war have left a bitter, divisive legacy in both the countries. There has never been official acknowledgement of that repression thus far. Mr. Hollande had pledged to change that. On 26 March 2012, he said he would atone in an official capacity for these events.
“The truth must be known. It is important to recognise what occurred,” Mr. Hollande wrote in a letter. An apology from the French President would be momentous and is unlikely to come soon. Recognition is just the very first small step in that direction.