The 1961 massacre that could help us understand the Paris attacks

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Today, French media identified one of the perpetrators of Friday’s deadly attacks in Paris as Omar Ismaïl Mostefai, a 29-year-old Frenchman with Algerian lineage. Mostefai, they said, was one of the gunmen who overtook the Bataclan concert hall, slaughtering roughly 80 innocent bystanders in minutes.

The attackers certainly had their own, twisted motives. But we can put their attacks into political context by looking back 54 years, to another Parisian massacre.


On October 17, 1961, at the height of the Algerian war of liberation against France, the Algerian FLN (National Liberation Front) organized a demonstration of Algerian workers and their families on the Right bank of Paris, right around the same area where Friday’s massacre took place. More than 200 people were killed by the Paris police all around the city.

This event is not typically listed along with other past terrorist attacks in Europe, for the simple reason that it was perpetrated by the French government’s authorities, against the backdrop of the Algerian War.


The 1961 massacre came seven years after the Algerian FLN launched an armed struggle against the French colonial administration. At the time, Algeria was considered a part of France. People used to say that France was one country separated by the Mediterranean Sea, but as the years went by, the struggle became increasingly violent, both in Algeria and on French soil. Events in Algeria quickly spiraled out of control and led to a quasi-coup d’état and the return of the General de Gaulle to power in 1958. De Gaulle promptly started to prepare for Algerian independence. Feeling betrayed, the more radical partisans of a French Algeria (who had brought De Gaulle back in to power) started a campaign of terror both in the colony and in the metropole.

Of all the European colonial powers, France is arguably the only one which had such a prolonged and protracted involvement with Arab and Islamic populations. And at the time of the 1961 massacre, there was a very large population of Algerian-born laborers in France. They were loyal to the FLN and helped finance the struggle for independence with the fruit of their hard work. And they organized a demonstration on October 17, 1961 to protest the anti-Algerian actions of the so-called OAS (Organisation Armée Secrète), with support of the underground FLN and the French Communist Party. For a venue, the demonstrators chose the so-called “Grands Boulevards” on the northern side of Paris, working-class neighborhoods whose population was mainly North African. Tens of thousands of demonstrators streamed in from the slums on the outskirts of Paris to support the cause.

To this day, the exact number of people killed in the 1961 massacre is not known, in part because the police archives were purged. The police prefect at the time was Maurice Papon, a zealous civil servant who was later tried for crimes against humanity, for rounding up Jews in Bordeaux at the behest of the Nazi occupiers. On that day in 1961, Maurice Papon gave free reign to his policemen. The police opened fire on the crowd, killing several. People were arrested en masse, and bussed to the Prefecture building, where they were beaten to death in the courtyard by officers (who had taken off their badges). Witnesses saw people being thrown into the river later that day from several bridges in the city and the suburbs. In his book La Bataille de Paris, historian Jean-Luc Einaudi estimated a tally of 200 victims.

The story of the 1961 massacre highlights the incredibly fraught relationship between France and its former colonial populations, some of whom are now French citizens. It is the lost grandchildren of these North African workers, the unsung heroes of Algerian independence, who are being recruited by ISIS and other Islamic extremist groups. They are as French as I am, but they carry with them the burden and the heritage of colonial oppression and dispossession. These second- and third- generation citizens of Algerian descent still face discrimination and poverty. Integration into French society remains a challenge because of that bloody history of conquest, submission and successful anti-colonial uprising.


Similarly, the lingering racism from some parts of French society directly comes out of the crucible of the Algerian War. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of France’s extreme-right Front National, was a soldier and a proud torturer of Algerian fighters during the War. The Front National’s base is in part composed of “Pieds-noirs,” French citizens from Algeria repatriated after Independence.

Friday’s attacks in Paris, reportedly carried out by ISIS-affiliated extremists, are part of this long history of post-colonial tension. The attacks appear to have been directly related to the ongoing civil war in Syria. However, the French citizenship of at least some of the perpetrators reminds us that these attacks can hardly be disentangled from France’s colonial past. That past, which has produced resentment and trauma on both sides of the Algerian War divide, still haunts the present.


Manu Saadia, the author of Trekonomics, hails from Paris, France. He lives in Los Angeles where he helps tech startups get off the ground. His first and only passion is the future.