October 17th 2011 marks the 50th anniversary of an event which even today five decades later remains unexplained. The date is a significant one for many people, and several parts of Paris - including the Pont Saint Michel where this plaque can be found - are marked by the event, but accounts of what actually happened differ widely.
In 1961, France was a country at war. It had begun in 1954, when an Algerian uprising against French colonial rule led to a war that would last until independance was granted in 1962. Although the conflict took place on Algerian soil, it naturally increased tensions across France, a country which was home to many people who had been born in Algeria.
In early October 1961, the French government installed a curfew, stating that all people of North African origin should stay at home between the hours of 8.30pm and 5.30am. As a protest against this restriction, the Algerian community decided to organise a peaceful march through the streets of Paris on October 17th (although some reports state that the Algerian community was told to march by their leaders, the FLN, under threat of death if they disobeyed).
The details of what happened next have been debated ever since, and it is far too complex a topic for me to attempt to analyse. Nobody seems to deny that people died that day, but estimates of the number vary from 70 to 300, which is why the plaque says simply 'des nombreux algeriens'. Here on the Pont Saint Michel, protesters are said to have been trapped by the police and then either thrown in the Seine, or to have jumped there themselves in panic. Many others were reportedly killed later after their arrest.
The French state has never acknowledged responsibility for this event which is today known as the Paris massacre of 1961. Police actions during the day remain a state secret, although the city of Paris did place this plaque - which speaks of a sanglante repression - on the Pont Saint Michel 10 years ago for the 40th anniversary.
It seems incredible that a fully democratic country such as France could keep such secrets today. A march is being organised to mark the anniversary, but it seems unlikely that the full truth will emerge in the short term (particularly with Presidential elections looming in 2012). Behind the huge drama of this event though, are numerous smaller tragedies. What price a life if nobody can say when you died or why?