Paris massacre of 1961
French president Hollande at a ceremony to pay tribute to victims of a massacre  in Paris on 17 October 1961, during the Algerian war Getty

In the wake of the Paris bloodbath which has killed at least 128 people, the French interior minister has authorised local authorities to impose curfews if necessary. French President François Hollande has announced that France's borders have been closed and the military are patrolling the streets. In an address to the nation, Hollande declared a state of emergency, calling the attacks on Paris a "horror".

This is the first time France has declared a state of emergency since the bloody Algerian war of Independence between 1954-1962. Many mistakenly believe this is the first time France has imposed curfews, since Second World War.

However, blood flowed on the streets of the French capital in 1961, in a forgotten episode of French history, when a peaceful rally, predominantly made up of Algerian immigrants, protested against a curfew placed on the city's entire north African population of. The demonstration led to what is called the "Paris Massacre" of 1961.

As Algeria's battle for independence spilled into France, Paris' then police chief, Maurice Papon, ordered the French National Police – the Sûreté nationale – and the Gendarmerie Mobile riot squads to crack down on thousands of Algerian protesters who had defied the curfew. Some protestors were shot and beaten by the police, whilst others were cuffed and pushed from bridges into the Seine and drowned.

Nazi collaborator and police chief

Papon would later be discredited, convicted of crimes against humanity for his part in the deportation of Jews to death camps during the Nazi occupation. Many of the police he led that night in Paris had served in Algeria, and had previously been responsible for rounding up thousands of Jews in the city for the Gestapo 19 years earlier.

Paris attacks, Algeria, Isis,
"Here we drown Algerians". Dozens of bodies were later pulled from the River Seine in October 1961 Unknown

The number of people who died on 17 October is still unknown. A day after the demonstrations, the French newspaper Libération reported the official toll as just two dead, several wounded and while 7,500 arrests had been made.

The death toll, however, was disputed by the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), which claimed that dozens of people were killed – many of the dead were found floating in the River Seine. Historians now believe that more than 200 people may have been killed by the French police.

It was only in 2012 that President Hollande acknowledged that Algerians were indeed massacred in Paris, the first time a French president had publicly accepted the killings took place.

"On October 17, 1961, Algerians who were protesting for independence were killed in a bloody repression. The Republic recognises these facts with lucidity," Hollande said in a statement. "I pay homage to victims 51 years later."

Paris's painful memory

However, the massacre is still a highly sensitive issue, with Christian Jacob, head of the conservative UMP party defending the role played by the authorities.

"While denying the events of October 17, 1961, and forgetting the victims is out of the question, it is unacceptable to blame the state police and with them the whole Republic," Jacob said in a statement.

Historians have compiled witness reports of protesters being chased through the streets of Paris and bludgeoned to death in the courtyards of police stations, according to a Reuters report.

For many years after the massacre, the French government banned publication of books about the killings and suppressed the photographs taken by journalists that night. Research was hampered by the fact that police documents from the time was never opened to the public.

French historian Jean-Luc Einaudi has researched the massacre and published the results in his book, La Bataille de Paris ("The Battle of Paris"). He believes that the events of October 1961 played a key role in the Algerian war and the independence that Algeria eventually won in 1962.

"I think the October 17, 1961 massacre in Paris is one among many episodes of the Algerian war," he said in an interview with France 24.

"As such, it cannot be understood if we do not put it in the context of the war on Algerian territory. I would even say it cannot be understood if you do not bear in mind that France was in a state of colonial repression. There was a convergence of interests [within the French political establishment] to maintain a silence, a forgetfulness, a willful ignorance about this issue. It took a lot of research, the publication of books and a civil society movement to slowly uncover the truth."