On June 1, 1958, in the midst of a bitter war in Algeria and facing the prospect of civil war at home, Charles de Gaulle was named prime minister of France. The only man acceptable to most factions within the country, de Gaulle demanded a price for his return to power.
Defeated and humiliated by the ease of the German conquest in World War II, France emerged from the war determined to reassert its position in the world. It quickly moved to re-establish itself in its colonies and ensure French authority remained supreme. Unlike Britain, where most of the establishment understood that the mother country must help its colonies toward eventual independence, which would allow for the continuation of economic, cultural and political cooperation, the French took a different view.
Rather than granting independence in the hopes of future cooperation, French policy called for the elevation of colonies to full Départments, administrative units within metropolitan France. Theoretically, a Vietnamese or Algerian native would be granted full citizenship within France and full rights to participate in French national politics. The French were unwilling to acknowledge that most colonial natives did not want to be French, however, but rather desired independence.
This reluctance to grant independence led to an increasing military presence in Vietnam. Communist guerrillas led by Ho Chi Minh (who had written a Vietnamese declaration of independence modeled on the American document and presented it on Sept. 2, 1945, the day Japan surrendered to the Allies in World War II), fought with a tenacity that surprised the French (and later the Americans). After the disastrous 1954 battle of Dien Bien Phu, in which a large French army was besieged and ultimately overrun, the French government decided to pull out of Vietnam and allow the United Nations to broker a settlement.
Back in Paris, the French had resigned themselves to ineffective governments and repeated regime changes. Created in the aftermath of World War II, between 1946 and 1958 the French Fourth Republic boasted only two presidents with little power but no less than 21 prime ministers. Despite impressive economic growth during the period, the French ship of state appeared to be rudderless as the various factions ensured continued deadlock and endless partisan politics.
Even as the problems in Vietnam were coming to a close, another colony began to experience its own rebellion against French authority. Located due south across the Mediterranean Sea from metropolitan France, Algeria had been administrated by Paris since 1830 and was home to roughly 1.5 million Frenchmen, representing around 12 percent of the population of the predominately Arab-Muslim colony. Various political groups and militant factions representing Algeria's natives wanted independence, and in 1954 they merged into the National Liberation Front, or FLN.
Constitutionally, Algeria was a part of France. Of the 626 deputies who sat in the French Assembly, 30 represented Algeria. Despite this, Paris denied many rights to the Algerian natives. Also, the French settlers, or Pieds-Noirs (Black Feet), desperately wanted Algeria to remain French. Generally looking down on the natives, the settlers feared what would happen if the tables were turned and the native Arab population was in charge. As the FLN began its insurrection, the French government found itself in a war to maintain control of the colony.
In his book “Tragedy & Hope: A History of the World in Our Time,” historian Carroll Quigley wrote: “The French Army, after a series of defeats from 1940 to Indochina (Vietnam) in 1954, resolved not to be defeated in Algeria and was prepared to overthrow by civil war any French cabinet that wished to grant independence to that area. Bitterness in Algeria was intensified by many other issues, including drastic religious, economic, social and intellectual contrasts between the European settlers and the Algerian majority.”
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