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The Imperial Boomerang: How France used colonial methods to massacre Algerians in Paris

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This is the fourth article in a five-part series examining the ‘imperial boomerang effect’ and its operation in a range of contexts.

Colonialism is engaged in a self-destructive process. But it still makes the air stink. It is our shame, it mocks our laws or ridicules them; it is infecting us with its racism.

Action Committee of Intellectuals against the War in Algeria, 1957

In October 1961, several hundred Algerians were shot, strangled and dumped in a local river system by police officers. Bullets thudded into crowds of demonstrators, torture camps dotted the city, and entire neighbourhoods cordoned off over-night as police prowled door to door, beating every Algerian man they found. And what was the city hosting this cascade of brutality? Paris.

The Parisian chief of police, Maurice Papon, once an enthusiastic Nazi collaborator, oversaw the bloodiest episode of state violence in post-WWII Western Europe.

What occurred in France in 1961 is one stunning example of a more general phenomenon: the imperial boomerang effect, when colonial methods of social control are imported back into the metropolis itself and deployed against marginalised populations at home. The methods of repression deployed by the French state in Paris were almost carbon copies of some of those developed to crush the National Liberation Front (Front de libération nationale, FLN) during the war in Algeria. To understand the political present in France, indeed, we must look to the continuing legacy and impacts of French colonialism within the metropolis itself.

‘Algeria is France’

Taking place a year before Algeria finally won its independence from France, the 1961 Paris events were one of the final acts in a French-Algerian war that had been burning since 1954. As the showdown in Algérie française intensified at the turn of the 1960s, the FLN took the unprecedented step of taking the war to the heart of empire: Paris. The FLN – supported by radical student solidarity groups in France, Germany and elsewhere – organised Algerian migrant communities in Parisian slums, developing a vast political network that sent aid and assistance back to Algeria. In response, the French elite drew on its extensive colonial experience in an attempt to stamp out the FLN’s network. As Jim House and Neil MacMaster’s ground-breaking study of the events, 1961, puts it, France ‘turned to the counter-insurgency expertise of the army and police in the French North African colonies when combating [Algerian nationalists] in Paris’.

A key figure in the migration of these techniques into the capital was Maurice Papon. He had been deeply implicated in the Setif massacres of 1945, when – as Europeans celebrated the defeat of Nazi Germany on the streets of Paris and elsewhere – the recovering French Empire slaughtered tens of thousands of Algerian peasants in a successful attempt to regain its imperial stature following humiliation at the hands of the Nazis.

Collaborating with quasi-fascist networks in the French police and far-right Pieds-noirs (white French settlers in North Africa) Papon developed his skills putting down rebellions in Morocco and the east of Algeria after World War II. Papon’s tactics included applying the ‘law of talion’, where every French soldier or civilian killed would be avenged by ten Algerians – no matter who was responsible. He participated in the policy of regroupement, whereby around 25% of the Algerian population was rounded up and forced into camps, and the development of urban torture centres of the kind represented at the beginning of the 2008 film, Mesrine.

In 1958, Papon was made head of the Parisian police under President Charles de Gaulle, widely considered the ‘Libérateur’ and a saviour of France during the Nazi occupation; when it came to savagely repressing the colonised, Nazi-collaborator and Nazi-opponent found a happy consummation.

Papon immediately set to work replicating the structures of repression he had developed south of the Mediterranean. Early morning and late night raids commenced on sealed-off sections of Paris, with police dragging Algerian migrants from their beds, destroying up their property and taking them to interrogation centres to be subject to ‘drawn-out and sadistic rituals of racial abuse’, as House and MacMaster record. Algerians were routinely beaten on the streets of Paris, military courts instituted, and North African shelters smashed up by police units bearing sledgehammers and crow-bars (a portent of recent French police practice in Calais).

The violence culminated in October 1961, ‘the apex’, as House and MacMaster describe it, ‘of a long phase of brutal repression that was organized at the highest levels of the French state’. Throughout the month, the ‘bloodiest act of state repression of street protest in Western Europe in modern history’ took place, when unknown hundreds of Algerian demonstrators and bystanders were shot, kidnapped, executed and dumped in the Parisian river system.

Although the November 2015 ISIS attacks are often described as the most violent incident of post-WWII Western Europe, October 1961 outstrips it several times over. Algerians were, House and MacMaster record in painstaking detail, usually ‘taken away by car to be murdered in isolated locations … the victim would be savagely beaten, kicked, and then strangled with a cord’. One French police officer later described how, following mass demonstrations of Algerian migrants on October 17, his unit roamed the streets of Paris for two hours and ‘fired on everything that moved’. A police van followed the execution squad, piling dead Algerians in the back – only to be angrily told by the French police commander that they should have left the bodies on the streets. 14,000 Algerians were interned in three days in Parisian camps that were ‘literally swimming in blood’. Incoming migrants were greeted by police ‘reception committees’, ‘armed with every conceivable weapon’. These reception committees, House and MacMaster write, ‘tripped [Algerians] up [and] showered down blows and kicks, just as they had done in colonial Morocco’. Algeria was France, as François Mitterrand stated in 1954. By 1961, France had become Algeria.

Françafrique, and (post?)colonial echoes

Following Algerian independence in 1962, the deeply held, century-old conviction that Algeria formed an indivisible part of France was abandoned, and the French government, in the words of Todd Shepard, rapidly ‘made common-sense understandings of racial or ethnic difference the basis of laws that denied most people from Algeria the right to remain French’.

The experience of decolonisation also boomeranged back to France in other ways, and offers a case-study in how imperialism degrades and weakens the democratic tendencies of the imperial nation from within. The French Fourth Republic collapsed in 1958, and its successor was destabilised by the quasi-fascist Secret Armed Organisation (Organisation Armée Secrète, OAS) of ex-colonists, Pieds-noirsfrom Algeria who resisted the granting of independence. The OAS organised acts of terror across France, and even attempted to assassinate President Charles de Gaulle and the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. This anti-democratic, postcolonial racial structuring of the French body politic continues today. The roots of the far-Right National Front, for example, are to be found, in part, in ‘anger over the loss of “French Algeria”’.

The banlieues of Paris and elsewhere remain visceral reminders of France’s internal racial structuring, a structuring derived directly from its imperial history. These semi-slums populated largely by migrants – often from Françafrique, continuing French neo-colonies in Africa – continue to face poverty and police violence. The periodic explosions in these abandoned ghettos, expressed with melancholic beauty in the 2016 film, Divines,are the rumbling reminder that the legacy and continuation of French imperialism still bubbles under the surface of French politics. The riots which struck Paris in 2017 in response to the police rape of a 22-year-old Black man were only the latest pass in the French imperial boomerang’s orbit.

Whilst much has been written of the French police’s brutal response to the Gilet Jaunes and Macron’s deployment of the army within France in March 2019, the military had in fact been used against the movement in the overseas colony of Réunion months earlier. In a story repeated over hundreds of years of European colonial history, an escalation of repression is first tested in the colony, far from the consciousness of the metropole’s dwellers, before being deployed to repress unruly elements among the latter.

Sadly, the French myth of a secular, post-racial republic renders these imperial legacies and present practices largely invisible within France. In the 20th century, the huge French Communist Party often supported the French Empire, seeing it as a potential vehicle for the international spread of socialism, and failed to provide any effective opposition to the war in Algeria. Today, large parts of the French Left support the burka ban, apparently content to see Muslim women hailing from former colonies forcibly declothed by French police for wearing the burkini. Few seem concerned about France’s military interventions in Africa (36 in 18 African countries from 1961-1990 alone). The figure-head of the French Left, Jean-Luc Mélanchon and his La France Insoumise, welcome plans to introduce compulsory national service (to, in their words, ‘reinforce [...] the link between the Army and the Nation [...and] to revive popular defense’).

With a legacy like this, there is an urgent need, as Selim Nadi puts it, for the French left to ‘free itself of the shackles of chauvinism and adopt a truly emancipatory politics’. As Aimé Césaire knew well, the racist-imperial malais that colours the French polity, including the Left, is only one instance – with unique characteristics – of the deep colonial ordering of European society and thought.

Connor Woodman is an independent researcher, writer and the author of the Spycops in context papers, available at: https://www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/publications/spycops-in-context

This is the fourth article in a five-part series examining the ‘imperial boomerang effect’ and its operation in a range of contexts; ending with a reflection on the boomerang’s strategic lessons for the 21st century Western Left. Read more here.

See all our anti-racism reading here.