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A Missed Chance to Connect Paris Massacres, Past and Present

Photograph of Paris’s Pont Saint-Michel, 1961. The graffiti reads, “Here we drown Algerians.”

In a piece picked up everywhere from the Chicago Tribune to the Knoxville News Sentinel, the Associated Press called the November 13 ISIS attacks in Paris “the deadliest violence to strike France since World War II.” The Atlantic concurred with that description for the horrific attacks that killed 130 people, calling them “the worst violence on French soil since World War II, and the worst in Europe since 2004 when coordinated blasts on Madrid’s commuter train system killed 191 people.”

It does no dishonor to those killed in Paris last month to acknowledge that at least 200 people were killed in that city on October 17, 1961. It was nearly seven years into the war for Algeria’s independence from French colonial rule, and some 30,000 Muslims demonstrated in central Paris against a curfew imposed solely on Muslims. They were met by a police force led by prefect Maurice Papon, who would later be charged with crimes against humanity for his collaborationist role in the World War II Vichy government.

In a 1997 story for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (3/97), reporter James Napoli cited contemporary reports of demonstrators clubbed, beaten, strangled and pushed into the Seine, of dead Algerians piled like cordwood. The French government covered up the massacre for years; official claims were that two, or perhaps five, people had been killed. Only in 2001 was a plaque erected to acknowledge the “numerous Algerians killed during the bloody suppression of a peaceful demonstration.”

Media needn’t worry that people wouldn’t care about the recent attacks without the superlatives, and though much can no doubt be attributed to lack of historical knowledge and laziness, they still missed a meaningful opportunity—to shed light on a hidden history and connect the present with the past.

Janine Jackson

Janine Jackson

Janine Jackson is FAIR's program director and and producer/co-host of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. She contributes frequently to FAIR's magazine, Extra! and co-edited "The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s" (2019).

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