Chapter 5, De Gaulle and the War (1958-1959)

Toward the Fall of the Fourth Republic

On January 11, 1958, a platoon of draftees was ambushed near the Tunisian border. Four soldiers of the contingent were taken across and held captive. Salan appealed for the right to pursue, and the government consented. For its part, the navy seized a Yugoslav freighter, The Slovenija, off Oran on January 18. It was transporting 148 metric tons of weapons from Czechoslovakia to the ALN training camps in Morocco.

In fact, a number of countries were now aiding the FLN, including the United Kingdom and the United States, which delivered weapons to Tunisia. On February 8, Salan authorized bombers to pursue an ALN column into Tunisian territory. The village of Sakiet-Sidi-Youssef was targeted. Sixty-nine civilians were killed, one hundred thirty wounded. After that scandal, a true disaster for France's international image, the French government found itself obliged to accept an Anglo-American "goodwill" mission. That mission would study the problem of the French presence in Tunisia, and especially the Bizerte base, which Bourguiba was demanding be evacuated.

During these three months, the ALN pursued its efforts against the Morice Line: the electrified barrier demonstrated its utility and allowed the government to consider shortening the length of military service (to twenty-four months instead of twenty-six in 1957), and to cut back on the army's expenses. That was enough to aggravate the pieds noirs and the army, who were united against the parties supporting the government. The Courrier de la Colere, run by Michel Debre, who was close to General de Gaulle, lashed out against the use of the UN. On March 13, 1958, police officers violently demonsttated against the government in front of the Palais- Bourbon. On April 15, Felix Gaillard, who appeared to be ceding to the pressures of NATO and the "missionaries" Robert Murphy and Harold Beeley,1 was voted out by the coalition of Communists, Gaullists, and Poujadists. The government teetered on the brink (Winock 1985).

The crisis of the parliamentary government, the paralysis that set in within the administration, the fall of the franc, linked to France's loss of credit in the world market, the foreign trade deficit, and finally, the climate of powerlessness that was reaching the highest echelons of the state, which faced thorny problems raised by the Algerian War, joined together to make the Fourth Republic succumb to impotence. In Algeria, there was an ineluctable chain of events. The "centurions" in the paratrooper units, who had sullied their hands, the officers of the bled, and the SAS leaders who dreamed of resuming Lyautey's work, pledged their honor and their word. They could no longer tolerate the constant upheaval in the government, the secret contacts with emissaries of the FLN, the pres- sure from abroad.

May 13,1958

On April 26, 1958, several thousand demonstrators marched in Algiers to demand a government of public safety. The previous day General Salan had announced that the army would accept nothing less than the total de- feat of the "rebels," followed by the possibility of amnesty. For a month, the Parliament had proved incapable of finding a new premier. On May 8, President Rene Coty was at a loss and appealed to the centrist Pierre Pfimlin (MRP), who publicly announced his intention to open negotiations with the FLN. Salan officially protested and many leaders of the Europeans of Algeria denounced this "diplomatic Dien Bien Phu." The same day, the FLN announced the execution of three prisoners of the contingent. The situation had gotten away from Robert Lacoste, who was summoned to Paris on May 10.

In Algeria the army remained the sole authority; the "defense committees of French Algeria" and the veterans called for a mass demonstration on May 13 as a tribute to the executed soldiers, and to force a change of government in France. That day had extraordinary consequences. The students in Algiers who formed the shock troops of the supporters of French Algeria decided to gather on the Forum in front of the offices of the general government to attract the official procession paying tribute to the memory of the executed soldiers. The operation succeeded beyond the hopes of its various protagonists. The mob did not disperse and finally threw itself against the gates of the general government, defended by the state security police (CRS), which Colonel Godard quickly replaced with the paratroopers of Colonel Trinquier's Third Colonial Paratroopers' Regiment (RPC). A GMC truck belonging to this regiment providentially served as a battering ram for the most determined of the rioters, who were swept into the building beside the paratroopers. A few mo- ments later, the high command joined in the revelry. Stunned by the spectacle, Massu and Salan were trapped inside the building by the throng of demonstration leaders: Leon Delbecque, Lucien Neuwirth, Pouget, Pierre Lagaillarde, and Thomazo.

While the Pfimlin government, which was invested at night between May 13 and 14, asserted its will in the metropolis to defend French sovereignty by declaring a blockade on Algeria in reaction to the riot, General Salan took over the unplanned meeting of the "Committee of Public Safety," presided over by General Massu, who was head of the Tenth Para- troopers' Division. This committee, imitated by dozens of others, assigned itself the mission of facilitating General de Gaulle's accession to power. Salan proclaimed as much the next day in front of the crowd. For months, in fact, the rumor had been gaining strength. First a mere murmur, a hypothesis made by the jurist Maurice Duverger in the columns of Le Monde, an idea accepted by Rene Coty, who said he was ready to step down, the solution gradually took root everywhere: only General de Gaulle could pull France out of the Algerian quagmire. Would he be the champion of independence or of steadfastness? A skillful politician, he refused to commit himself so long as he did not have power. What he desired first was "to restore state authority," to join a new government tailor-made for him, endowed with strong presidential power.

General de Gaulle's Return to Power

After several weeks of urging by his supporters, General de Gaulle finally broke his silence by declaring on May 15 that "in the face of the ordeals once more mounting" in the country, he stood "ready to assume the powers of the Republic." The army, whose chief of staff, General Paul Ely, had resigned, no longer obeyed the government. The rumor spread that paratroopers were preparing to land in the metropolis to impose a government of public safety. On May 19, General de Gaulle, in front of the press summoned to the Palais d'Orsay, again asserted that he was at the disposition of the country. He declared that, at sixty-seven, he had no intention of "beginning a career as a dictator." Antoine Pinay, who had been premier in 1952, returned from his visit to Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises on May 22 with the assurance that General de Gaulle had refused to lead a coup d'etat fomented by the regular army. But the dissidence moved to Corsica on May 24, where the prefecture was besieged by the men of May 13, Thomazo and Pascal Arrighi in the lead, with the support of the paratroopers of the Eleventh shock troops in Calvi, which disarmed the state security forces (CRS) without encountering resistance. The population of Bastia gleefully witnessed the expulsion of the vice-mayor, who had remained faithful to the government.

At that moment public opinion in the metropolis was convinced that only General de Gaulle could resolve the crisis, eliminate the prospect of civil war, and end the Algerian War. The images of the May 16 "fraternization" in Algiers [when some pieds noirs went into the Casbah to demonstrate their sympathy with the indigeneous people, but not their support for independence-trans.] had spread the illusion that the Muslims wanted assimilation. Reconciliation seemed possible.

On the night of May 26-27, the officers' work finally paid off: Pfimlin and de Gaulle exchanged their viewpoints in a building in the park of Saint-Cloud in Paris. The premier was persuaded to resign. The next day, a press release from General de Gaulle announced that he "was beginning the regular process necessary for the establishment of a republican government capable of ensuring the unity and independence of the country." The Europeans of Algeria put out the flags: this time, the general had "spoken," as he had been invited to do on May 11 by the former Petainist Alain de Serigny, in his newspaper L 'Echo d'Algerie: The army and the pieds noirs witnessed the series of events with joy: Pfimlin's resignation, followed on June 1 by General de Gaulle's investiture by the assembly, despite the success of the demonstration held by the left on May 28 to "defend the Republic."

Between June 4 and 7, General de Gaulle took a trip to Algeria. He gave speeches in Algiers (with the famous "I have understood you"), in Mostaganem (where he shouted "Long live French Algeria," for which he would later be sharply criticized), to Oran, Constantine, and Bone, proclaiming that there were in Algeria "only Frenchmen through and through, with the same rights and the same duties." It was the end of the Fourth Republic and the advent of the Fifth. A new constitution was put forward that gave the president of the Republic a great deal of power. He could dissolve the National Assembly (article 12), he possessed full powers in case of grave events (article 16). In that constitution, the executive power was placed beyond the reach of Parliament, whose role was considerably reduced.

On September 28, 1958, the Europeans and the Muslims (both men and women) voted overwhelmingly in favor of the constitution of the Fifth Republic. And, on October 3 in Constantine, they learned from General de Gaulle's own mouth of the future economic and social trans- formations that the government had committed itself to financing in Algeria: 15 billion francs in public works projects and urban development, and a gradual program for schooling young Muslims. On December 21, 1958, General de Gaulle was elected president of the French Republic and of the French Community.

General de Gaulle's Algerian Policy

In hindsight, there can be no doubt about General de Gaulle's will. The notorious "I have understood you" was a statement, not a commitment. There was also a "Long live French Algeria" in Mostaganem-but only one. Very quickly, the plan became clear. Between June and December 1958, General de Gaulle asserted his will to bring together the Muslims and the Europeans, but banished from his speeches the expressions "French Algeria" and "integration." Beginning on August 28, a sentence uttered during one of his trips to Algeria put the proponents of French Algeria on the alert: "The necessary evolution of Algeria must come about within the French framework." The pieds noirs began to worry. The obligatory departure of military personnel from all the committees of public safety and the notice they received that they were banned from running in the Algerian legislative elections managed to cast suspicion on General de Gaulle's intentions. At the same time, de Gaulle was decolonizing Madagascar and the rest of Africa. The press conference on October 23, 1958, shook the last souls clinging to the memory of May 13 and the Mostaganem speech: General de Gaulle offered "the peace of the brave" with no conditions other than that of leaving the "knife in the cloakroom." But the FLN, which formed the Gouvernement Provisoire de la Republique Algerienne, or GPRA (provisional Government of the Algerian Republic), on September 19, 1958, rejected that call for surrender and increased its actions in the metropolis. All the same, 1958 ended with goodwill gestures: a presidential pardon for convicts in the FLN, which in response, liberated French prisoners of war.

On the evening of September 16, 1959, General de Gaulle appeared on television. He explained that eighteen months after his return to power the economy was recovering. But then came the shock:

Given all the facts in Algeria, national and international, I consider it necessary that the recourse to self-determination be proclaimed beginning today. In the name of France and the Republic, by virtue of the power vested in me by the constitution to consult the citizenry, on the condition that God may grant me life and that the people may listen to me, I commit myself to asking, on the one hand, the Algerians in their twelve departments what they definitively want to be, and, on the other, all the French people to endorse that choice.

General de Gaulle did not set precise deadlines or a time line for a possible negotiation. He also asserted that, in case of secession, "all arrangements would be made for the exploitation, transport, and shipping of Saharan oil, which, be assured, is the work of the army and in the interests of the West as a whole, whatever may happen."

But, after five years of a cruel war, begun on November 1, 1954, a war that still did not dare speak its name, the taboo word had been uttered: "self- determination." The illusions and ambiguities of General de Gaulle's policy were now dispelled. The head of state, rejecting integration, which he called "Gallicization," offered the Algerians the choice between partnership and secession. That speech of September 16, 1959, marked a true turning point in French political life, which had been poisoned by the Algerian question. It implied open negotiation with the FLN, and granted the Muslim population (who had a nine-tenths majority) the right to decide Algeria's fate. The proponents of French Algeria immediately cried treason and shouted that they had been duped. They pointed out that the principles proclaimed in the days of May and June 1958 were being called into question, since French Algeria was no longer a matter of fact, but was becoming a referendum question. Following that speech, it was not long before the political battle set in motion revealed divisions within the Union pour la Nouvelle Republique, or UNR (Union for the New Republic): nine Gaullist deputies left the organization on October 8, 1959. On September 19, Georges Bidault created the Rassemblement pour I' Algerie francaise, or RAF (Union for French Algeria). In it were Christian Democrats as well as "Soustellian" Gau1lists and Algerian elected officials favoring integration. The only party that completely embraced General de Gau1le's position was the MRP. During the parliamentary debate of October 6, General Challe spoke of "integral pacification." That was the sign of a hardening of the army, which would not hear of "negotiation" and wanted to continue the war until victory was achieved.

On the other side, on September 28, 1959, the GPRA set out independence as the prerequisite to any negotiation. On November 20, the Algerian nationalists designated Ahmed Ben Bella and his fellow prisoners to negotiate with France, which rejected that suggestion. The Algerians' distrust can be explained in great part by the considerable scope the war had taken on under General de Gaulle's orders.

Under General de Gaulle, the War Continues

In 1959, in fact, General de Gaulle ordered the army to strike its harshest blows against the ALN, to force it to negotiate for the conditions set by France. Salan was transferred to Paris on December 19, 1958; General Challe replaced him.

In 1959, General Challe, with his 500,000 men, launched large-scale combined operations against the guerrilla forces of the ALN. His "hunt commandos" obtained conclusive results and broke up the katibas in the wilayas of Kabylia and the Aures, which were already weakened by internal purges incited by the poison introduced by the Second Bureau (the intelligence service). On March 28, Colonels Amirouche and Si Haoues, responsible for wilayas III (Kabylia) and VI (Sahara), respectively, were killed in battle. On July 22, a general military action, the "Jumelles" operation, which put more than twenty thousand men on the line, was set in motion in Kabylia under General Challe's control. Nevertheless, "pacification" remained spotty in these "thousand villages" where displaced populations had been assembled by force. But, among the officers, thanks to the major operations of General Challe, the impression prevailed that they were finally gaining ground: the FLN katibas were tracked down, and many were destroyed. Small, hungry groups holed up in the most remote of the mountainous massifs. It was a terrible war for the Algerians: more than 2 million peasants were displaced. On April 28, 1959, Michel Rocard, then a young high official, had sent a report to the minister of justice criticizing the re- settlement camps in Algeria. And, on January 5, 1960, Le Monde published the international commission's report on the internment camps in Algeria, which caused a great stir.

On January 18, 1960, the Gennan newspaper Siiddeutsche Zeitung published an interview in which General Massu declared that the army, "which has the forces" and "will call on them if the situation requires it," no longer understood General de Gaulle's Algerian policy. A denial was published, but Massu was summoned to Paris and was replaced on January 22 by General Jean Crepin as commander of the army corps in Algiers. Rumors of insurrection circulated. In April 1959, General de Gaulle had indicated, "The old Algeria is dead, and if you don't understand that, you will die along with it." In early 1960, the Algerian War entered a new phase, that of a Franco- French confrontation in which some would want to "die for Algeria."