Paris massacre of 1961

Victims a demonstration of some 30,000 pro-National Liberation Front (FLN) Algerians
Location Pont Saint-Michel
Died Unknown
Date 17 October 1961; 60 years ago (1961-10-17)
Criminal penalty Unknown


The Paris massacre of 1961 occurred on 17 October 1961, during the Algerian War (1954–62). Under orders from the head of the Parisian police, Maurice Papon, the French National Police attacked a demonstration by 30,000 pro-National Liberation Front (FLN) Algerians. After 37 years of denial and censorship of the press, in 1998 the French government finally acknowledged 40 deaths, while some historians estimate that between 200 and 300 Algerians died. Death was due to heavy-handed beating by the police, as well as mass drownings, as police officers threw demonstrators into the river Seine.

The massacre was intentional, as substantiated by historian Jean-Luc Einaudi, who won a trial against Papon in 1999 (Papon had been convicted in 1998 of crimes against humanity for his role under the Vichy collaborationist regime during World War II). Official documentation and eyewitness accounts within the Paris police department suggest that Papon directed the massacre himself. Police records show that he called for officers in one station to be "subversive" in quelling the demonstrations, and assured them protection from prosecution if they participated.

Forty years after the massacre, on 17 October 2001, Bertrand Delanoë, the Socialist Mayor of Paris, put up a plaque in remembrance of the massacre on the Pont Saint-Michel. How many demonstrators were killed is still unclear. In the absence of official estimates, the plaque commemorating the massacre reads, "In memory of the many Algerians killed during the bloody repression of the peaceful demonstration of 17 October 1961". On 18 February 2007 (the day after Papon's death) calls were made for a Paris Métro station under construction in Gennevilliers to be named "17 Octobre 1961" in commemoration of the massacre.


The massacre took place in the context of the Algerian War (1954–62), which had become increasingly violent. After Charles de Gaulle's return to power during the May 1958 crisis and his sudden change of policy on Algerian independence, the OAS used all possible means to oppose the National Liberation Front (FLN), which took the war to the metropolis, where it was helped by activists such as the Jeanson network. The repression by French authorities, both in Algeria and in metropolitan France, was very harsh.

The French National Police

Maurice Papon, who died in 2007, was the only Vichy France official to be convicted for his role in the deportation of Jews during World War Two

According to historian Jean-Luc Einaudi, a specialist on the massacre, some of the causes of the violent repression of the 17 October 1961 demonstration can best be understood in terms of the composition of the French police force itself, which still included many former members of the force in place during the Vichy regime that collaborated with the Gestapo to detain Jews, as for example in the Vel' d'Hiv Roundup of 16–17 July 1942.

The vast majority of police officers suspended after the Liberation of Paris in 1944 for extreme forms of collaborationism (including assistance to the Parti Populaire Français and similar groups) were later reintegrated into the police forces. In contrast, some of the policemen who had been part of the French Resistance had their career advancement blocked because of Cold War anti-communism, since the Resistance was partially communist and communist ministers had been expelled from the government in May 1947. Moreover, police officers who had been members of the Resistance might well have taken part in the various raids against Jews and other persecuted groups during the Vichy regime, as otherwise they would have been dismissed.

Papon's career as Head of Paris's police force in the 1960s and Minister of Finance under Valéry Giscard d'Estaing's presidency in the 1970s suggests that there was institutional racism in the French police until at least the 1960s. In fact, Papon was not charged and convicted until 1997–98 for his World War II crimes against humanity in being responsible for the deportation of 1,560 Jews, including children and the elderly, between 1942 and 1944.

Papon appointed head of Police Prefecture (March 1958)

Before his appointment as chief of the Paris police, Papon had been, since 1956, prefect of the Constantine department in Algeria, where he actively participated in the repression of and use of torture against the civilian population. On 13 March 1958, 7,000 policemen demonstrated in the courtyard of the police headquarters against delays in the "risque prime" accorded to them because of the war, although the FLN had not yet begun to target police officers. Encouraged by far-right deputy Jean-Marie Le Pen, 2,000 of them attempted to enter the Palais Bourbon, seat of the National Assembly, with shouts of "Sales Juifs! A la Seine! Mort aux fellaghas!" (Dirty Jews! Into the Seine (river)! Death to the (Algerian) rebels!). With Minister of Interior Maurice Bourgès-Maunoury's recommendation, Papon was named prefect the next day. Two years earlier, in Constantine, Algeria, he had assumed the role of "Inspecteur général pour l'administration en mission extraordinaire" (IGAME – General Inspector for the Administration on Extraordinary Mission). "Prohibited zones, detention centers (camps de regroupements), torture, executions without trial: this is the reality of the war he [Papon] was supervising out there." According to Einaudi, in the following years he applied these methods in Paris and the Seine department.

After the May 1958 crisis and the installation of the French Fifth Republic under 'Free France' leader Charles de Gaulle's leadership, Papon was kept on. He created the compagnies de district (district companies), police forces that specialized in repression, where new police recruits were trained. These companies were formed mainly from veterans of the First Indochina War (1947–54) and young Frenchmen coming back from Algeria.

August 1958 raids

On 25 August 1958, an FLN offensive in Paris killed three policemen on Boulevard de l'Hôpital in the 13th Arrondissement and another in front of the cartoucherie de Vincennes. Papon retaliated with massive raids on Algerian people in Paris and its suburbs. More than 5,000 Algerians were detained in the former Beaujon hospital, in the Japy gymnasium (11th Arrondissement) and in the Vél'd'Hiv. The Japy gymnasium and the Vél'd'Hiv had been used as detention centers under the Vichy regime. A former member of the FTP resistance, reporter Madeleine Rifaud wrote in L'Humanité:

In the past two days, a racist concentration camp has been opened in Paris. They have not even had the good sense to choose a site which would not remind French patriots who are currently celebrating the anniversary of the Liberation of Paris of what took place there.

Creation of the CIV and the FPA militia (1959–1960)

According to Einaudi, "Already at this time, policemen [were] boasting about throwing Algerians in the Seine" river. Vincennes's "identification center" (CIV—Centre d'identification de Vincennes) was then created under the authority of the prefecture of police in January 1959. Algerians detained during police raids in the Paris region could be brought there for identity verifications but could also be put under house arrest by the prefect. "These raids were frequently the occasion of violence," Einaudi wrote.

The Auxiliary Police Force (FPA—Force de police auxiliaire) was created in 1959. This special constabulary force, under the authority of the Algerian Affairs Coordination Center of the Prefecture of Police (Centre de coordination des Affaires algériennes de la préfecture de police) and supervised by the military, was under Papon's control. Led by Captain Raymond Montaner and based at the Fort de Noisy, Romainville, it was composed entirely of Algerian Muslims recruited in Algeria or France. In autumn 1960, the FPA had 600 members. It first operated in the 13th Arrondissement, where it requisitioned café-hotels. Torture is rumoured to have been used, most notably at 9, rue Harvey and 208, rue du Château des Rentiers. Forced disappearances took place. The FPA then extended its action to the 18th Arrondissement, where three hotels were requisitioned in rue de la Goutte-d'Or. The FPA was also active in the suburbs, from the summer of 1961, in particular in Nanterre's bidonvilles. Some voices were opposed to these crimes denied by the police prefecture. Christian magazine Témoignage chrétien [fr] wrote: "It is not possible to stay silent when, in our Paris, men are resurrecting the methods of the Gestapo".


The FLN decided to resume bombings against the French police at the end of August 1961; from the end of August to the beginning of October 1961, 11 policemen were killed and 17 injured in Paris and its suburbs. "These bombings had the effect of spreading fear throughout the ranks of the Paris police, but also for increasing the desire for revenge and hate against the whole of the community. During the whole of September, the Algerian population was severely repressed. In practice, this massive repression was based on physical appearance", according to Einaudi. There were daily raids against Algerians—and frequently any Maghrebi people (Moroccans or Tunisians), and even Spanish or Italian immigrants, who were taken for Algerians. Algerians were arrested at work or in the streets and thrown into the Seine with their hands tied in order to drown them, among other methods, as shown for example in a report by the priest Joseph Kerlan from the Mission de France.

According to Einaudi, "It was in this climate that, on 2 October, during the funerals of a policeman killed by the FLN, the police prefect [Papon] proclaimed, in the prefecture's courtyard: 'For one hit taken we shall give back ten!' This call was an encouragement to kill Algerians and was immediately understood as such. On the same day, visiting Montrouge's police station, the prefect of police declared to the police officers present: 'You also must be subversive in the war that sets you against others. You will be covered, I give you my word on that'".


On 5 October 1961, the Prefecture of Police announced in a press statement the introduction of a curfew from 8.30 p.m. to 5.30 a.m. in Paris and its suburbs for "Algerian Muslim workers", "French Muslims" and "French Muslims of Algeria" (all three terms used by Papon, although the approximately 150,000 Algerians living at the time in Paris were officially considered French and possessed a French identity card). The French Federation of the FLN thus called upon the whole of the Algerian population in Paris, men, women and children, to demonstrate against the curfew, widely regarded as a racist administrative measure, on 17 October 1961. According to historian Jean-Luc Einaudi, Papon had 7,000 policemen, 1,400 CRS and gendarmes mobiles (riot police) to block this demonstration, to which the Prefecture of Police had not given its agreement (mandatory for legal demonstrations). The police forces thus blocked all access to the capital, metro stations, train stations, Paris' Portes, etc. Of a population of about 150,000 Algerians living in Paris, 30,000–40,000 of them managed to join the demonstration however. Police raids were carried out all over the city. 11,000 persons were arrested, and transported by RATP bus to the Parc des Expositions and other internment centers used under Vichy. Those detained included not only Algerians, but also Moroccan and Tunisian immigrants, who were then sent to the various police stations, to the courtyard of the police prefecture, the Palais des Sports of Porte de Versailles (15th Arrondissement), and the Stade Pierre de Coubertin, etc.

Despite these raids, 4,000 to 5,000 people succeeded in demonstrating peacefully on the Grands Boulevards from République to Opéra, without incident. Blocked at Opéra by police forces, the demonstrators backtracked. Reaching the Rex cinema (the site of the present Le Rex Club on the "Grands Boulevards"), the police opened fire on the crowd and charged, leading to several deaths. On the Neuilly bridge (separating Paris from the suburbs), the police detachments and FPA members also shot at the crowd, killing some. Algerians were thrown into and drowned in the Seine at points across the city and its suburbs, most notably at the Pont Saint-Michel in the centre of Paris and near the Prefecture of Police, very close to Notre Dame de Paris.

During the night, a massacre took place in the courtyard of the police headquarters, killing tens of victims. In the Palais des Sports, then in the "Parc des Expositions of Porte de Versailles", detained Algerians, many by now already injured, [became] systematic victims of a 'welcoming committee'. In these places, considerable violence took place and prisoners were tortured. Men would be dying there until the end of the week. Similar scenes took place in the Coubertin stadium… The raids, violence and drownings would continue over the following days. For several weeks, unidentified corpses were discovered along the river banks. The victims of the massacre can be estimated to at least 200 fatalities.

In 1961, the police prefecture spoke only of "2 persons shot dead". Following historian Jean-Luc Einaudi's testimony during the Papon trial in the late-1990s, left-wing police Minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement ordered the opening of parts of the archives. The resulting Mandelken Report, based on the investigation of these partial records, counted 32 dead. Einaudi then published an op-ed in Le Monde on 20 May 1998, contesting this official figure, criticizing both the methodology of the report and the consulted records. He called attention to the fact that many of the records had been destroyed. A report that Papon had prepared for Interior Minister Roger Frey, the prime minister, and the head of government, Charles de Gaulle, was not included in the consulted records. In addition, the Mandelken report ignored the massacre that had taken place in the courtyard of the Police prefecture, and Papon's name itself appeared nowhere in the report. Einaudi concluded his op-ed stating that: "on the night of 17 October 1961 there had been a massacre perpetrated by the police forces acting on the orders of Maurice Papon." Papon subsequently filed a lawsuit against him in February 1999, because of this sentence, alleging defamation of a public servant.

In the meanwhile, the state acknowledged in 1998 the massacre and spoke of 40 dead.

Responding to Papon's request, the court gave an ambiguous judgement. It stated that Einaudi had "defamed" Papon, but that Einaudi had acted on "good faith", and praised the "seriousness and quality" of Einaudi's research. Both Papon and Einaudi were thus vindicated by the court's judgement.

The French government commission in 1998 claimed only 48 people died. Historian Jean-Luc Einaudi (La Bataille de Paris, 1991) asserted that as many as 200 Algerians had been killed. The historian Jean-Paul Brunet found satisfactory evidence for the murder of 31 Algerians, while suggesting that a number of up to 50 actual victims was credible.

This contradicts David Assouline, who in 1997 was granted limited access to consult part of the police documents (which were supposed to be classified until 2012) by Minister of Culture Catherine Trautmann (PS). He found a list of 70 persons killed, while the texts confirmed Einaudi's comments that the magistrates who had been called on by the victims' families to consider these incidents had systematically acquitted the policemen. According to Le Monde in 1997, which quoted the director of the Paris Archives, the register listed 90 persons by the second half of October.

In a 2001 article in Esprit, Paul Thibaud discussed the controversy between Jean-Luc Einaudi, who spoke of 200 killed on 17 October, and 325 killed by the police during the autumn of 1961, and Jean-Paul Brunet, who gave an estimate of only 50 (and 160 dead, possible homicide victims, who passed through the IML medico-legal institute during the four months between September and December 1961). Although criticizing Einaudi on some points, Thibaud also underlined that Brunet had consulted only police archives and took the registers of the IML medico-legal institute at face value. Based on other sources, Thibaud pointed out (as did Brunet) that administrative dissimulation about the dead had taken place, and that the IML could not be relied upon as sole source. Thibaud concluded that Einaudi's work made it possible to give an estimate of 300 Algerian victims of murder (whether by police or others) between 1 September and 31 December 1961.

The events surrounding the massacre and its death toll were largely unknown for decades. There was almost no media coverage at the time. These events remained unknown in part because they were overshadowed in the French media by the Charonne Metro Station massacre on 8 February 1962 whose victims were not only Algerians, but also French members of the French Communist Party.


On 26 October 1961, Georges Montaron, editor of Témoignage chrétien [fr], Claude Bourdet, editor of France Observateur, Emmanuel d'Astier de la Vigerie, editor of Libération, Avril, editor of Télérama, parish priest Lochard, Jean-Marie Domenach, editor of Esprit magazine, Jean Schaeffert and André Souquière organized in the Maison de la Mutualité a meeting to "protest against police violence and the repression of the 17 October 1961 demonstration in Paris".

A few days later, some anonymous policemen published a text called A group of republican policemen declare... (Un groupe de policiers républicains déclarent...) on 31 October, stating:

What happened on 17 October 1961 and in the following days against the peaceful demonstrators, on whom no weapons were found, morally forces us to bring our testimony and to alert public opinion (…)
All culprits must be punished. The punishment must be extended to all responsible people, those who give orders, those who pretend to just let it happen, whatever their high office may be (…)
Among the thousands of Algerians brought to the Parc des Expositions of the Porte de Versailles, tens were killed by blows from rifle butts and pickaxe handles (…) Others had their fingers chopped off by members of law enforcement, policemen and gendarmes, who cynically had renamed themselves "welcoming committee". On one end of the Neuilly bridge, groups of policemen on one side, CRS on the other, moved slowly towards each other. All the Algerians captured in this huge trap were knocked out and systematically thrown in the Seine. A good hundred people were subjected to this treatment (…) [In the Parisian police headquarters,] torturers threw their victims by tens in the Seine, which flows only a few meters from the courtyard, to keep them from being examined by forensic experts. Not without taking their watches and money. Mr Papon, the police prefect, and Mr. Legay, general director of the city police, were present during those dreadful scenes (…)
These indisputable facts are only a small part of what happened these last days and what continues to happen. They are known among the city police. The crimes committed by the harkis, by the Brigades spéciales des districts, by the Brigades des aggressions et violences are no secret any more. The little information given by news outlets is nothing compared to the truth (…)
We won't sign this text and sincerely regret it. We observe, not without sadness, that current circumstances do not allow us to do so (…)

The authors remained anonymous until the late 1990s although Maurice Papon tried to discover them. In February 1999, its main author, Emile Portzer, former member of the National Front resistance organization during the war, testified in favor of historian Jean-Luc Einaudi during the trial that Papon had launched against him (later won by Einaudi). On 1 January 1962, Papon declared to the police forces under his orders:

On 17 October you won … victory against Algerian terrorism … Your moral interests have been successfully defended, since the aim of the police prefecture's opponents to put in place an investigation committee have been defeated.

8 February 1962 Charonne massacre

On 8 February 1962, another demonstration against the OAS, which had been prohibited by the state, was repressed at Charonne metro station (Affaire de la station de métro Charonne). Nine members of the CGT trade union, most of them French Communist Party members, were killed by the police forces, directed by Maurice Papon under the same government, with Roger Frey as Minister of Interior, Michel Debré as Prime Minister and Charles de Gaulle as president, who did all they could to "hide the scale of the 17 October crime" (Jean-Luc Einaudi). The funerals on 13 February 1962 of the nine persons killed (among them, Fanny Dewerpe, mother of French historian Alain Dewerpe [fr]) were attended by hundreds of thousands of people. On 8 February 2007 the Place du 8 Février 1962, a square near the metro station, was dedicated by Bertrand Delanoë, the mayor of Paris, after sprays of flowers were deposited at the foot of a commemorative plaque installed inside the metro station where the killings occurred.


According to James J. Napoli, coverage of the massacre by major British and American media sources, such as The Times, Time magazine and The New York Times, downplayed the severity of the massacre as well as the Paris government's responsibility for the events.

Recent events

Following the massacre that occurred in 1961, the police archives were sealed to anyone looking to investigate until the 1990s when they were eventually reopened. This was following the publication of "La Bataille de Paris" by Jean-Luc Einaudi in which he approximated that the death toll was closer to 200. With the publication of this book, the massacre began to gain more acknowledgement which led to the reopening of the archives. However, Einaudi still was denied access for 30 months following the access that was granted to another historian Jean-Paul Brunet who estimated that the death toll was about 30.

The official death toll was initially three, before the French government acknowledged in 1998 that the massacre occurred and that "several dozen" people were killed.

No one has been prosecuted for participation in the killings, because they fell under the general amnesty for crimes committed during the Algerian War.

Forty years after the massacre, in 2001, the event was officially acknowledged by the city of Paris with the placement and unveiling of a memorial plaque near the Pont Saint-Michel. This resulted from work by the Socialist Party local government. At the unveiling of the plaque, Bertrand Delanoë, the Socialist Party Mayor of Paris, cited the need for France to come to terms with this event in order to move forward with unity. Centrist and right-wing politicians, as well as the police union, objected to the plaque on various grounds (increased threat of civil unrest, alleged tolerance of terrorism, and encouragement of disrespect for the police). On the other hand, historian Olivier LeCour Grandmaison, president of the 17 October 1961 Association, declared to L'Humanité that

if a step forward had been taken with the decision of the city of Paris to put a commemorative plaque on the Pont Saint-Michel, [he] deplored that the text which was chosen for it invokes neither the idea of a crime against humanity nor the responsibility of the author of the crime, the state. Thus, in no case does this Parisian initiative exempt the highest national authorities from taking responsibility. In addition, if [former Socialist Prime minister] Lionel Jospin personally expressed himself last year [in 2000] by speaking of "tragic events", neither the police's responsibility in the crime nor that of those politically responsible at the time have been clearly established, much less officially condemned.

On 17 October 2012, President François Hollande acknowledged the 1961 massacre of Algerians in Paris. His acknowledgement of the event was the first time a French president had acknowledged the massacre. This acknowledgement came two months before his address to Algerian Parliament. In his address to the Algerian Parliament, he further renounced and acknowledged the colonial past of France including the massacre that took place on the 17 October 1961. This address has been found to be very controversial due to how President Hollande framed French colonization and other content that was in the address. Some argue that despite President Hollande's acknowledgement of the event, it will hold little value in changing the view of France and their imperialistic history.

On October 16, 2021, President Emmanuel Macron condemned the massacre on the eve of its 60th anniversary, recognising officially that the French Republic had committed at this occasion "unforgivable crimes", without however issuing a formal apology for such "unforgivable crimes", in line with its stated policy consisting in recognising and acknowledging colonial crimes committed by the French Republic in the past, rather than formally apologising for them or asking for forgiveness. Macron later attended a memorial ceremony for the victims becoming the first French president to do so.

In popular culture

A memorial plaque for Algerians killed on 17 October 1961 by Parisian police officers who were acting under orders of the Prefect of Police, Maurice Papon.
  • The massacre was referenced in “Bruno, Chief of Police,” a 2008 novel by Martin Walker.
  • The massacre was referenced in Caché, a 2005 film by Michael Haneke.
  • The 2005 French television drama-documentary Nuit noire, 17 octobre 1961 explores in detail the events of the massacre. It follows the lives of several people and also shows some of the divisions within the Paris police, with some openly arguing for more violence while others tried to uphold the rule of law.
  • Drowning by Bullets, a television documentary in the British Secret History series, first shown on 13 July 1992.
  • The massacre is the subject of Leïla Sebbar's 1999 novel The Seine was Red: Paris, October 1961 (La Seine était rouge (Paris, octobre 1961)).
  • The massacre is described in the opening verse of Irish punk rock band Stiff Little Fingers song 'When The Stars Fall From The Sky'.
  • French rapper Médine dedicates a song to the massacre on his album Table d'écoute.
  • It forms the core of Didier Daeninckx' 1984 thriller Meurtres pour mémoire, which is also the first attempt to mine the archives of the massacre through the form of a fictional enquiry. However, expatriate American novelist and journalist William Gardner Smith's 1963 novel The Stone Face is now recognized as the earliest known fictional treatment of the events. Although the death toll is listed in many places at 140 dead or missing, writer and social critic Kristin Ross points out otherwise while invoking Smith's and Daeninckx's work:

African-American novelist William Gardner Smith put the figure at "over two hundred" in his 1963 novel, The Stone Face. It is a mark of the success surrounding the official blackout of information about 17 October that Smith's novel, written by a foreigner in France and published in the United States (it could not be published in France), would stand as one of the few representations of the event available all the way up until the early 1990s–until the moment, that is, when a generation of young Beurs, as the children of North African immigrants call themselves, had reached an age at which they could begin to demand information about their parents' fate. Professional or academic historians have lagged well behind amateurs in the attempt to discover what occurred on 17 October; investigative journalists, militants, and fiction writers like Smith, or the much more widely read detective novelist, Didier Daeninckx, kept a trace of the event alive during the thirty years when it had entered a "black hole" of memory.

  • In 2013, Rachid Ouramdane [fr] produced a work during which Dorothée Munyaneza read out the names of victims of the massacre.
  • In 2017, French comedian Jhon Rachid created a short film about the massacre, entitled Jour de Pluie (Rainy Day).