The killings, which the French historian Emmanuel Blanchard called the most deadly repression in Western Europe since World War II, took place as Algeria was in the seventh and penultimate year of its fight for independence from colonial master France.
The peaceful demonstration on October 17th, 1961, of some 30,000 Algerians – mostly living in shanty towns around the French capital – was called by Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN).
The official death toll that night was given as three, including two Algerians. But historians say between 50 and 200 people were killed.
Algerian men, women and children dressed in their best clothes had come in from poor suburbs like Nanterre and Aubervilliers to the Champs-Elysees and the capital’s big glitzy boulevards to demonstrate.
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They were protesting against a strict curfew imposed on them since October 5th to prevent the FLN – which had killed at least five police officers in France in the previous six weeks – from collecting funds.
Algerians in France had become used to regular police round-ups and harassment that sometimes prevented them from working. They were also the target of deadly racist attacks by a terror group which wanted to keep Algeria French.
But that evening the violence was of a different order, with 10,000 police charging into the crowd, hurling some into the river.
The man who gave the command was Maurice Papon, who despite having collaborated with the Nazis during World War II had risen to become head of the Paris police.
Papon was later convicted of war crimes for deporting 1,600 Jews to the death camps.
At his 1997 trial, historian Jean-Luc Einaudi said Papon’s men had opened fire on the Algerians.
“Police officers could be seen throwing those killed into the Seine,” he said.
Few beyond those who had witnessed the atrocity were aware of the scale of the killing as news was covered up.
But word spread and a famous graffiti, “Here we drown Algerians”, was scrawled across one of the bridges across the Seine near the Louvre.
“Many victims died under the blows of the police, dozens of others were thrown into the Seine and several died of suffocation after being thrown to the ground and covered by heaps of bodies,” according to the Immigration Museum in Paris, which has helped catalogue the little-known event.
It later emerged that some police had been influenced by erroneous reports that their colleagues had been shot dead during the demonstration.
But many Algerians were grabbed by police long before the protest began, rounded up as they got off the Metro. Some 12,000 were arrested and bused to internment camps, prepared in advance, where they were beaten or expelled to Algeria, with the lucky ones eventually allowed to go home.
Jacques Simonnet, a psychiatrist who was a student at the time, witnessed the treatment of those held in one camp. He said those arrested suffered “kicks, thumps… and were battered with sticks. The violence got to an unimaginable point.”
In 2012 then French president Francois Hollande recognised the massacre.
“Algerians protesting for their right to independence were killed during a bloody repression,” Hollande said.
“The republic clearly recognises these facts,” he added, saying “I pay tribute to the memories of the victims.”