Why Paris’ past isn’t really past

November 30, 2015

Irish Times columnist Eamonn McCann recalls another episode of violence in Paris.

AT THE opening session of the talks that led to the latest Stormont House Agreement--involving the governments of Britain and Ireland and a majority of parties involved in the Northern Ireland executive--the British government's Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers called for "a fresh approach" to the problem of dealing with the past. A truly fresh approach would be Villiers coming clean about the past actions of soldiers and others under British command. But that's precisely the point on which discussion broke down.

Villiers suggested afterward that the difficulty lay in a disproportionate concentration on "the activities of the state," compared with "the wrongdoing of paramilitaries." Paramilitary crimes are "wrongdoing," state atrocities are "activities." Still, all parties were agreed that no overall deal would endure without a common understanding of the events that had brought us to this juncture. Let's apply this perspective to November 13 in Paris.

Associated Press described the attacks as "the deadliest violence to strike France since the Second World War." Dozens of other Western outlets echoed this view. But it is wide of the mark. The deadliest violence to strike France since 1945 was probably the mass killing of Algerians by the Paris police in 1961. "Probably," because even today, there's no consensus on how many were done to death. Nobody was counting. Estimates vary from 80 to 300.

Two victims of the police massacre of Algerians in Paris in 1961
Two victims of the police massacre of Algerians in Paris in 1961

The occasion was a march calling for independence for Algeria. Paris police chief Maurice Papon wanted it suppressed. Police charged and beat up and fired on the demonstrators. About 10,000 were arrested, crammed into vans and taken to makeshift detention centers. Hundreds of statements afterwards described extreme violence and a number of deaths in the centers, but no inquiry was ever launched. (Papon was to be convicted in 1998 of crimes against humanity for his participation, as police chief in Bordeaux, in the deportation of more than 1,600 Jews to the concentration camps during German occupation.

Demonstrators who managed to escape the initial attack were hunted through streets and into bars, shops and homes. Injured and wounded Algerians were tossed into the river. According to Simone de Beauvoir, "Corpses were found hanging in the Bois de Boulogne and others, disfigured and mutilated, in the Seine."

IT MIGHT be thought that such an event would be well-remembered and worth mentioning in the context of coverage of November 13. But apparently not. It seems reasonable, however, to speculate that Parisian Muslims might be better acquainted than most with the events and with the complicity of successive French governments.

It would be crass to suggest a direct link between 1961 and the fact that a number of the Islamic State attackers--including the apparent leader of the Bataclan concert hall killers, Omar Ismaïl Mostefai--were French citizens of Algerian lineage. But neither can 1961 be discounted when it comes to a political explanation of the Paris massacre.

There's a pattern here. Ask almost any Iranian you chance to meet what the significance is of the number "655," and they'll tell you of Iran Air Flight 655, a civilian plane on a flight from Teheran to Dubai that was shot down by a guided missile fired from the cruiser USS Vincennes in July 1988. The plane was on its usual flight path, over Iranian waters and in Iranian airspace when it was blown out of the sky with the loss of all 290 passengers and crew. Ask a Westerner what 655 connotes, and like as not, you'll be asked in return whether it doesn't have something to do with devil-worship.

On April 3 last, in Bir Mahli village in Aleppo in Syria, 19 women and 31 children were killed by "coalition" bombs. No one has apologized or volunteered responsibility. The names of the dead are entirely unknown in the countries that killed them. There were 2,449 Western bomb attacks on Syrian targets in the year to August. The tempo is set to quicken in the aftermath of November 13. The numbers fleeing the quadripartite (at least) battle for military supremacy will rise steeply.

It is when the despairing anger arising from these circumstances intersects with the promise of liberation held out by an apocalyptic version of Islam that the message of Islamic State, also known as ISIS, begins to resonate across the region and beyond. The extirpation of ISIS requires an end to these circumstances--or at least to be seen to be willing to try to end them. But that's not in the perspective of any major player.

Western armies have been rampaging across the Middle East for a thousand years, never in the interests of the people of the region, always intent on robbing its riches while strengthening their own strategic position.

Villiers is right when she says all who genuinely want a solution to such intractable problems must deal with the past: logically, their own past first. But neither in the North nor anywhere else on which imperial Britain has left its mark does it show the slightest intention of doing any such thing.

First published in the Irish Times.

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