56 Years After Paris Massacre, State Racism Lives On In France

On October 17th, 1961, hundreds of French Algerians were killed when French authorities attacked a large protest. France’s racist legacy continues with the profiling and targeting of France’s Muslims today, says human rights advocate Yasser Louati

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Story Transcript

AARON MATÉ: It’s the Real News, I’m Aaron Maté. Today is the anniversary of the Paris Massacre of 1961. On October 17th, up to 300 French Algerians were killed when French authorities attacked a large protest in support of the Algerian Revolution. Thousands of protestors were then forcibly driven into detention camps where they were beaten and deprived of food. The massacre is being commemorated as the racist legacy of the Algerian War is very much alive in France. Just recently, French lawmakers quietly approved a measure that makes sweeping measures under a two year emergency law permanent.

Yasser Louati is a French human rights and civil liberties advocate. Welcome, Yasser. Good to talk to you today on this anniversary. Can you talk about what happened back then in 1961 and then trace it to what we’re seeing in France today?

YASSER LOUATI: In 1961, we were nearing the end of the Algerian War and the colonial struggle that was taking place in that French colony of North Africa. In the night of October 17th, the Algerian marchers were demonstrating actually not directly against the ongoing war, but against a discriminatory curfew, which was only applied against “Muslim workers,” which was the term for Algerian workers who were non-French in Europe.

The orders was to hold them and keep them from marching both from the [inaudible 00:01:46], or the suburbs of Paris, into Paris, and from within Paris. The orders were given by a person called Maurice Papon. Maurice Papon was at that time, the Prefect of Paris who is the head of the police.

That person, Maurice Papon, was already a person who had collaborated with the Nazis, and had contributed to the deportation of Jews during the occupation of France. This spells a lot of … What can I say? Shame for the country, because instead of dismissing the people who worked with the Nazis and contributed to the deportation of Jews, here you have these high ranking government officials remaining in office, and given highly [inaudible 00:02:36] positions like the Prefect of Paris.

Maurice Papon gives the clear order that you have to crush the demonstrators. Of course, the accusation was that they will be armed and they will be shooting on civilians in downtown Paris. Nothing of that happened, but in return what happened is that the police, which from itself outnumbered by the peaceful marchers, panicked and called for more troops.

Orders were given to shoot directly at the crowd. Some of them were thrown into the Seine River. Others were taken in buses into the police building to be shot in cold blood by the police, and others were taking into the Pierre de Coubertin stadium in Paris. That massacre basically was supposed to be a shock, but it only demonstrated on French soil what was happening in Algeria and in other French colonies.

To prove that it was not an accident or that things got out of hand, another massacre took place a few months later in a subway station of Charonne, and several people again were killed by the police. So, that event actually went forgotten, nobody spoke about it, and France entered into voluntary admission about the event. It took three decades for anti-racist advocates and researchers to bring back that event into the limelight, and to bring the debate on the recognition of the French state, off this state sponsored crime.

To this day, nearly 60 years afterwards, we are still debating whether or not the event should be recognized. François Hollande, when he was president, up until a few months ago, recognized the “bloody repression of pacifist marchers,” but to tell you that or to show that it did not teach French elites any lessons, the same person, François Hollande, who was recognizing the bloody repression, is a person who called for the state of emergency and to making it permanent, even if it means changing the constitution, even called for stripping of their citizenship, so-called radicals convicted of terrorism.

AARON MATÉ: Yasser, let’s talk about that. The current state of emergency. The latest iteration was enacted in 2015, after the November attacks in Paris. Recently, though, it was quietly made permanent, or at least several facets of it were made permanent. Can you explain what that means?

YASSER LOUATI: Actually, the state of emergency gave again, tremendous power to the police. Most notably, the capacity to arrest any person, to raid their homes, their businesses, to tap their phones on near suspicion. You no longer have to go before courts to do that. You just have to issue an administrative order.

So far, within two years, that meant over 6000 homes have been raided, mostly against Muslims, as testified by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and many other human rights organizations. But that law is no longer, or those measures are no longer exceptional. Now they are part of the common law, which means now immediately starting in one week ago, the police can raid people’s homes on mere suspicion.

The change in comparison to the first version of the state of emergency that was applied in the 1950s is that the French state went from attacking dangerous behaviors to reasons to believe there is suspicious behavior. That’s where the problem lies, because now the police can arrest any person because of their look, because of their assumed religion, and the list goes on.

That’s why when people say we are living under a police state, if you combine all the extreme anti-terrorist measures that have been passed in the last 20 years, including the law of the rising mass surveillance of the internet, phones, and any means of communication, you no longer have the right for privacy. You no longer have the right to be at least declared innocent, unless you are proved guilty.

Those measures were passed on the racist discourse, so much so that 80% of French public opinion are in favor of those measures. Of course, if the state is [inaudible 00:07:26] public opinion, don’t worry. It will only apply to blacks, Arabs, and Muslims. You don’t have to feel afraid of those measures. What public opinion says, when we have been attacked, forgetting that Muslims have been attacked as well, and Muslims have been killed as well in the various terrorist attacks. Nobody wants to put those measures in the face of reality, that none of them have prevented the past terrorist attacks. The most notorious one of them is being, of course, the Bastille Day attack of last year.

AARON MATÉ: It can be difficult to understand the extent to which racism has been mainstreamed, and racist policies have been so widely accepted. As you say, 80% of the population supports these measures, so can you explain how that’s come to be? Where attitudes like that are very widespread from the political class on down.

YASSER LOUATI: Well, the previous administration, in order to make these laws acceptable, were speaking about “the enemy within.” That enemy within was of course in the same sentence or the same discourse somehow a practicing Muslim or a dissenting Muslim, or a person who does not fit or does not go along the dominant discourse. In the implementation of state of emergency was against Muslim homes, was against mosques, and now every single time French elites speak about radicalization, they only speak about practicing Muslims.

Even some prefects in France have agreed on multiple occasions that we’re targeting Muslim visibility. The word radicalization, for example, is never applied to white supremacist groups that get military training in Ukraine, or others who go join the Israeli Army. It is solely against Muslims. When you have the capacity for the state to shut down any place of assembly and those place of assembly that were shutdown are only mosques, it is never, for example, neo-Nazi assemblies. It is never, for example, churches calling for the overthrowing of the French Republic. It is solely against Muslims.

When you have various organizations numbering the attacks against Muslim homes, and the French government says, “So what? We have to do something,” you see that the first victims of these extreme measures were predominately Muslims, but in order to justify otherwise unacceptable measures, we have to tell public opinion, “You know what? We are going against these radical Muslims.” The problem is that radical Muslim has first, radical has never been defined, and radical Muslim goes from an Al-Qaeda like character to a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf, or a person going to their mosque fasting Ramadan.

AARON MATÉ: Or wearing a burka type bathing suit, right? When the burkinis as they were called, were even banned in a couple of French towns. Yasser, let me ask you, as an activist who is opposing all these measures and opposing this mentality, what are the challenges for you in a country where as you say, you’re coming up against a large segment of the population, 80% in some cases, that support these kinds of measures against Muslims?

YASSER LOUATI: Well, we are facing this similar with all due respect to proportion and to what happened in the past, every single minority in France faced similar odds. The Jews, the Protestants, the Spanish fleeing the Spanish Civil War, and the Italian workers, etc. They all went through it. Unfortunately, that’s the French school of integration. You have to go through these kind of events, but now the biggest challenge is not to confront the French state at home. It’s a lost battle.

Now, we have to go through international institutions and expose the abuses of the French state in the same places where the French government goes and lectures other countries on human rights, and the rule of law. Because these two things are gone. You can no longer speak about the rule of law in France, or the police can arrest any person without going before court, and you can no longer speak about basic human rights when minorities are asked to remain or to become invisible.

That’s our objective right now, is to go through the UN, the European Commission, the European Parliament, the OSCE, and every single international platform to confront the French state. Trying to go after the mainstream media is also a big challenge and that’s why there is a push for authoritative media to emerge. For example, we have a new one called LeMuslimPost that come, on which I do contribute, but you also have various people pushing for new faces to take part in public discourse. This battle is going to take a generation or two. Make no mistake about it.

AARON MATÉ: Always encouraging to hear about the emergence of alternative media anywhere, and Yasser, we thank you for telling us about it. Yasser Louati, French human rights activist. Thanks very much.

YASSER LOUATI: Thank you for having me. Thank you very much.

AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.