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‘The FLN’s objective on 17 October was to prove that the masses were behind it’

Sixty years ago this month, French police massacred an estimated two hundred Algerians in Paris during a peaceful demonstration in support of an independent Algeria. At the FLN's request, Renault factory workers and leftist activists Clara and Henri Benoits attended the demonstration as observers. They recount what they witnessed in this fascinating interview.

25 October 2021

‘The FLN’s objective on 17 October was to prove that the masses were behind it’

Clara and Henri Benoits, interviewed by Robert Pelletier and Fred Speelman

**NB: This interview originally appeared in Revue L’Anticapitaliste on 12 October 2021

Aged 96 and 90 respectively, Henri and Clara Benoits are among the most precious witnesses of the demonstration of 17 October 1961. They were Trotskyist militants during this period, working at the Renault-Billancourt factory. Their story is told at great length in their book See also the interview from which below is extracted.

What were your links with the struggles of the Algerians at Renault in October 1961?

Henri: Ever since my arrival at Renault, I had warm relations with many Algerian militants, notably in the CGT.[1] The fact that some of them knew me as an active Trotskyist facilitated contacts. The MTLD[2] militants knew that the PCI[3] had supported them continuously since 1945, and we were in contact with all the Algerian currents in the factory, who joined the FLN[4] formed at the Renault Billancourt factory in April 1956.

Clara: I joined Renault in 1949 and was a staff delegate for the section that included workers and salaried staff, which enabled me to be in contact with CGT workers’ delegates, many of whom were Algerians who I sympathised with. Some were in the Communist Party and we took part in strikes and demonstrations together. The Algerians were demanding independence. As early as 1955, we set up a committee for peace in Algeria, with a recognition of the demand for independence, to support the French who were helping the Algerians, a position outside the CGT. The Comité des mensuels pour l’Algérie[5] not only included CGT militants but also CFTC[6] people.

Henri, you were an activist in the CGT, but also politically committed...

I was a member of the Trotskyist cell in the factory when I joined in 1950. As a CGT delegate for draughtsmen, I maintained regular links with all the immigrants present in Billancourt. This is why the Fourth International associated me with the clandestine work of practical support for the FLN. The essential task initially focused on publishing material for Algerian workers. In addition, we had to provide temporary or permanent accommodation for FLN militants and facilitate the transfer of FLN contributions.

In the factory, some FLN militants knew through the channels of their organisation of my commitment outside, but, for reasons of clandestinity, they did not speak to me about it, except for knowing smiles. I stopped this clandestine activity after my arrest by the DST[7] in 1959. My activity was then directed towards the Algerian workers of the FLN at Renault, and to the AGTA.[8] At the beginning of 1961, along with Clara, we initiated a committee to help the imprisoned Algerians, and send money orders to those imprisoned in regular prisons or camps such as Larzac.

Witnesses of 17 October

There was a real war in France against the Algerians. In the police stations, their situation was aggravated by systematic racism: all kinds of vexation and discrimination, as well as direct repression. And the repression was constant.

The French federation of the FLN organised this demonstration to protest against the introduction of the curfew introduced by police prefect Maurice Papon, which prohibited Algerians, ‘French Muslims’ as they were called at the time, from going out between 8.30 pm and 5.30 am. The FLN wanted to demonstrate that the Algerians were behind it.

We were invited by a comrade from the factory who was in contact with the FLN. Our role was to be present at the demonstration and give a faithful account of its progress, but not to intervene, whatever happened. There were five of us there from Renault. Our testimony was given the next day to Mohammedi Sadok, one of the leaders of the French federation of the FLN. Everything is recounted in the evidence we gave for Einaudi[9] when Papon sued him for libel in 1998. More than thirty years after the facts.

Our evidence concerned the route of the demonstration between Place de l’Opéra and the Le Rex cinema at the Bonne Nouvelle metro station. A few months later, there was the Charonne demonstration,[10] which for years contributed to the demonstration of 17 October being obscured.

After Algeria gained independence a few months later, many Algerian activists went back home. From the 1990s onwards, particularly with the work of Einaudi, 17 October has become more visible than Charonne. We participate every year in the gathering on Quai Saint Michel, where the Paris city hall has replaced the tag ‘ici on noie les algériens’ (this is where Algerians are drowned) with a plaque that is not very visible.

Translated by David Fernbach


[1] Confédération générale du travail, the largest French trade-union federation, close to the French Communist Party (PCF). – Trans.

[2] Mouvement pour le triomphe des libertés démocratiques was a nationalist party founded in 1946 after the banning of the Parti du peuple algérien. – Trans.

[3] Parti communiste internationaliste, the French section of the Fourth International (United Secretariat). – Trans.

[4] Front de libération nationale, the movement that waged war against the French and has ruled Algeria since independence. – Trans.

[5] Committee of salaried staff for Algeria. – Trans.

[6] The Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens, the second-largest French trade-union federation, Christian more in terms of its social doctrine than in any confessional allegiance. – Trans.

[7] Direction de la surveillance du territoire, a police intelligence service of that time. – Trans.

[8] Amicale générale des travailleurs algériéns. – Trans.

[9] Jean-Luc Einaudi, a historian and political activist, investigated the massacre of 17 October 1961 and wrote in Le Monde that this was carried out on the direct order of Maurice Papon. – Trans.

[10] On 8 February 1962, police repression of a pro-Algerian demonstration led to the death of eight people outside the Charonne metro station. – Trans.

Filed under: algeria, decolonization, fln, france, trade-unionism