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60 years after a massacre in Paris, French-Algerians are still pushing for justice

Oct 21, 2021
Originally published on October 21, 2021 7:03 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

France is commemorating the 60th anniversary of a dark night in Paris. In 1961, a peaceful protest for Algerian independence quickly turned into a deadly massacre as police cracked down on protesters, killing dozens. It was during the height of Algeria's war against France, and immediately afterwards the French government covered it up. Newspapers were censored, archives sealed. During an event on Saturday, French President Emmanuel Macron laid a wreath for the victims and said the massacre was inexcusable. But he did not formally apologize for the state's role.

Our next guest argues that with fascism growing in France, today's ceremonies like this one are not enough. Melissa Chemam is a French-Algerian journalist and author. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MELISSA CHEMAM: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: Your parents lived in France during this time. They supported the Algerian liberation struggle. What did they tell you about these events that they lived through?

CHEMAM: That's the thing. I think for a very long time, they hardly mentioned the war at all. There was only a book about the Algerian war that was hidden in my living room. And my father had been quite involved, but he moved to Paris when he was a teenager. And I was born many, many years later because he had children only later in life because of all this trauma and poverty and all that. So he tried to protect me and my sister from a lot of the past history. And I kind of learned all the French history first at school about being, you know, the country of the enlightenment and resistance and human rights and the fights against the Nazis. And it's only as a teenager when I started my own reading beyond this that I became more aware of what happened between the French empire, former colonies and our very own homeland.

SHAPIRO: And so in your parents' generation, there was this conspiracy of silence. How much has changed in the present day? Are journalists and historians able to research and ask questions about the massacre? I mean, has there been an authoritative history? Has there been an authoritative accounting? When you try to research these things, is the information actually there?

CHEMAM: The information is very hidden. There's a bit of research that's been published from French historians, but it's mostly about French heroes - kind of mentioned it or decried what was happening. It's not really about the Algerian resistance or the number of people who were killed. So there's still disagreement in France between the authorities and historians on the number of people who died. And it's very rarely mentioned. And I think this year is one of the first time it's finally addressed that deeply.

SHAPIRO: You would like to see France wrestle with its colonialist past and confront its racist sins, but the political trend lines appear to be moving in the opposite direction. Far-right groups have been gaining power and popularity. Candidates have proposed tighter borders and even forbidding parents from naming their child Muhammad. How do you reconcile the recognition of the massacre with the reality of present-day French politics?

CHEMAM: You summarize one of my deepest dilemma. I was born in Paris, in France, the first one in my family. And I grew up there with all the good signs of France. I had a wonderful free education. And I went to the same university as our president. But this is incompatible. The human rights level that France is associated with is incompatible with what is happening nowadays. And so that's why I also live in England because I write about postcolonial issues and human rights issues that my own country won't address.

And I've never lived in Algeria. I've only been with my family. And I do wish to be able to reconcile (ph) these two part of my identities. And we are millions of people in that case on both sides of the Mediterranean. But as you describe, the discourses have become so extreme and anti-Islam in general, some people were claiming for excuses or reparation. But in my case, I'm not even calling for that. I just want the people of color to be given the same respect - right? - not to be killed, especially by the police, especially by authorities and by the states, as white people can have.

SHAPIRO: That's Melissa Chemam, a journalist and lecturer at University of the West of England in Bristol. Thank you very much.

CHEMAM: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.