October 1961: Helping France face up to the ghosts of empire

Academic: Dr J. House, Faculty of Arts

By examining the causes, events and public memory of one of the most controversial episodes in contemporary French history, the University of Leeds has helped achieve official recognition of the Paris massacre.

On 17 October 1961 a peaceful, pro-independence demonstration of 40,000 Algerians in Paris against a night-time curfew which applied only to them was brutally repressed by the police, with  very many fatalities. Initially covered up, these events resurfaced and were formally recognized by the French state in 2012.

Offering new evidence and perspectives

Leeds co-authored the book, Paris 1961, drawing on previously unavailable sources to provide the most comprehensive and original study of these events. Whereas previous analyses concentrated on the specific day of 17 October 1961 and on the role of particular individuals, Paris 1961 focuses on the history of a repressive system in Paris and on the weeks leading up to the violence. Paris 1961 shows that  police killings of many Algerians did happen on and around 17 October 1961 and examines in groundbreaking detail how and why these events were initially covered up, but resurfaced in the 1980s.

The project has ‘strongly contributed’ to achieving official recognition of the massacre in France.

Co-president of the campaigning association Au nom de la mémoire

Influencing civil society and public discourse

The authoritative book has increased public understanding in the face of previous official French denials by corroborating that a massacre took place. Leeds has contributed to public debate, giving numerous interviews to French and Algerian national media and advising on four documentary films. The new social and political climate that Paris 1961 has helped to bring about has enabled former demonstrators to publicly speak out, which Leeds has encouraged. 

Leeds has directly supported initiatives with French and Algerian civil society groups, improving the understanding between older and younger generations. By encouraging public acceptance that the violence constitutes ‘a shared event’ in Franco-Algerian history, Leeds has helped strengthen inter-ethnic solidarity.

By generating greater social visibility of the massacre, the book has helped move October 1961 to the centre of political debates in France and Algeria. In French legislation seeking to formally recognize the massacre, Paris 1961 is cited as proving large-scale repression. In 2012 Leeds discussed Paris 1961 with the Algerian President.

The massacre’s greatest visibility came at the 50th anniversary in 2011, in part due to the book’s findings. In October 2012 France formally recognized its existence.

Funder: Arts & Humanities Research Council