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The Paris Attacks and the Politics of Memory

While describing the tragic civilian massacre in Paris, many in the French and international media added further fuel to the inevitable racial backlash in the West by a significant, but all too predictable, historical lie. Mainstream newspapers, such as Le Figaro in France, the Telegraph in Britain, the New York Times, the Washington Post and many US journals fed by the Associated Press; all of the major US TV-radio networks; media websites such as Time.com, thedailybeast.com, theatlantic.com and vice.com/fr; and even the progressive reporting of Democracy Now! all claimed that Friday’s events were the worst violence or terrorist attack in a single day in France since World War II.

Every journalist, editor and publisher responsible, however unintentionally, for this historical erasure exemplifies, no doubt, but also further encourages racist amnesia in the broader society that this claim represents. The issue is whose history is remembered
and why.

Over three decades passed before broader French public consciousness began slowly to acknowledge and to condemn the horrific, deliberate police massacre of immigrant Algerian demonstrators marching peacefully in Paris on October 17, 1961. It was the final year of the Algerian war for national independence and peace negotiations were already well underway. Some 30,000 or more Algerian men, women and children were organized by the nationalist FLN to participate in a central city street march protesting a newly imposed racist curfew against Muslim residents of the Paris region. The vast majority of demonstrators, of course, were simply unarmed mobilized civilians, not militant activists, and were still officially citizens of France.

In advance, however, Paris police chief Maurice Papon, ex-Vichy official and later responsible for torture and summary executions in Algeria, explicitly encouraged police to use every means to destroy the demonstration and thus weaken the movement behind it. Papon himself was implicitly encouraged to do so by his knowledge of secret anti-FLN death squads operating in France and endorsed at the highest level of French government. With this green light, Paris police (many of whom belonged to the proto-fascist Secret Army Organization) viciously attacked the October 17th marchers with batons and guns and threw dozens of bound or unconscious men into the Seine to drown. Over ten thousand were arrested and taken for further beatings and murders at police stations or special improvised prison camps. The overall scale of deaths, wounded and disappeared from this Paris attack and massacre, a clear example of state terrorism, is acknowledged by serious observers to be at least comparable to the scale of casualties of this past November 13th.

I was a student in Paris that year and remember that press coverage of the massacre was relatively modest, no doubt in part because of internal and government press censorship. Less than four months later, the deaths of nine French anti-fascist protestors after police charges and beatings in another demonstration provoked a subsequent general strike and presence of half a million in a massive funeral protest at the Place de la République. Yet, by contrast, it took some three decades of diligent research, writings and documentaries by small numbers (including especially Jean-Luc Einaudi) to finally gain the significant public attention that the atrocious event of October ’61 deserved.

Now, with media claims that last Friday’s attack and violence were unprecedented in scale since World War II, the brush of amnesia seeks again to wipe clear the historical record of 1961’s Paris police massacre. The reality and power of media institutional racism to shape historical memory is blatant.

The point here is not to engage in macabre historical competition. Rather, the media’s easy authoritative forgetting of the 1961 tragedy and the influence of that neglect and similar distortions have real consequences on how today’s mass public frames its consciousness and response. Simplistic historical omissions help fuel the tendency toward simplistic and misguided solutions, as already seen in Hollande’s and Sarkozy’s demand for total war and similar outcries from presidential candidates in the US.

Unfortunately and tragically, it is Friday’s victims in Paris, just as civilians throughout the war zones of the Middle East and North Africa, who pay the price of deaths and destruction from the unconscionable demagogy and policies of mindless politicians, war hawks and religious fanatics on all sides.

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David Porter is emeritus professor of political science at SUNY/Empire State College and author of Vision on Fire: Emma Goldman on the Spanish Revolution and Eyes to the South: French Anarchists and Algeria (both AK Press). He can be reached at david.porter@esc.edu.

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