In the early sixties, post-war France was perilously close to being a police state, the Algerian War of Independence (1954-62) being a major point of contention between right-wing forces wanting to preserve France’s empire and left-wing forces (including communists and trade unionists) who supported independence for former colonies. The combination of these tensions, along with the heavily military-influenced, nationalist government of former General de Gaulle and a police department which still contained many officers who had served during the Nazi-ruled Vichy regime of WW2, came to a disastrous head in 1961-2, with the Paris chief of police Maurice Papon assuring his officers that they would not be prosecuted if they took a “heavy-handed” approach with left-wing demonstrators.
On the 8th of February 1962, there was a left-wing demonstration against the Algerian War in general, and the Organisation armée secrète in particular (a right-wing militia that supported the war). The Paris police barricaded streets and forced demonstrators into the Voltaire area, where they tried to shelter in the Metro station Charonne. At this point, the police took their commander’s “reassurances” all too much to heart, and they attacked the trapped protesters by taking manhole covers and the iron grilles from around trees, and throwing them down the stairwells. Nine people died, including a sixteen-year old boy. The police blamed the violence entirely on the protesters.
On the positive side, however, the slaughter raised popular emotion against police repression, and the Algerian War finally ended a month later, to overwhelming public approval.
Song (“Charonne”, 2004) by Compagnie Jolie Môme, a French left-wing cabaret troupe whose favourite targets include fascism, capitalism, nationalism, austerity, and racism. Wonderful the things one can discover by having a French socialist hubby … I often listen to this band at my day job in the Royal Mail, as since the Brexit vote and the bizarre elevation of such right-wing, upper-class Conservative “eccentrics” as Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg I have been forced to the conclusion that far from wanting a better world for all underprivileged people, what the “modern” British worker wants are smirking aristocrats they can doff their caps to, and hideous tabloid newspapers and alt-right websites encouraging them not to feel ashamed of their narrow-mindedness and racism (and I fear that goes double for the average Trump supporter).