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.”
This conflict intensified during the so-called 1956-57 Battle of Algiers, in which the FLN began a terrorist bombing campaign against soft targets in Algeria's capital city. Through a ruthless crackdown by the French paratroopers, which included interrogation, torture and summary executions, the French were able to end the violence in the city and claim victory in the battle. The larger war continued, however. Many in the French government began to believe the time had come to grant Algeria its independence.
In May of 1958, the French government suggested openly that negotiations should begin with the FLN with an eye toward Algerian independence. The very notion was unthinkable to the French paras, and their commander, Gen. Jacques Massu, seized control of the colony from the civilian authority. The paras then landed and seized control of Corsica and threatened to land in Paris and overthrow the government.
In his book “La Belle France: A Short History,” historian and eyewitness Alistair Horne wrote: “In Paris at the time, I recall it vividly as a period of extraordinary anxiety and tensions, when the country seemed to tremble on the brink of civil war and anarchy. Cars flew up and down the Champs-Élysées sounding their horns, the drivers shouting 'Vive de Gaulle!'; nevertheless, despite the crisis, on that warm Whit Sunday holiday of 25 May, a record number of cars still headed insouciantly out of Paris for the countryside.”
The drivers, as well as the majority of citizens throughout France and Algeria, placed their hopes in Charles de Gaulle, the wartime leader of the Free French forces against Hitler. De Gaulle, who had defiantly marched down the Champs-Élysées under sniper fire during the liberation of Paris in 1944, had headed up the French provisional government before resigning in 1946 — before the ineffective Fourth Republic came into existence.
Most Frenchmen held de Gaulle in high esteem, not only for his leadership during the war but also for his unwillingness to compromise and his dedication to what he believed was right. The French army believed that its old commander would never let them down by negotiating independence with the FLN, and more moderate voices in the French government believed he was the only man who could reach a compromise that would be acceptable to all sides. Only the French Communist Party and other extreme figures of the political left opposed de Gaulle's return.
At the end of May, the republic's president, René Coty, asked de Gaulle to form a government as prime minister. De Gaulle agreed but insisted that changes be made. The failure of the Fourth Republic, de Gaulle believed, stemmed from the weak powers of the presidency. Ever since the 1789 French Revolution, the French had never resolved the problems of executive power.
Some governments, like the First, Third and Fourth Republics, had kept their presidents too weak to govern effectively, while other regimes had given the executive far too much power that often led to dictatorships — Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon III and the World War II Vichy government of Philippe Pétain.
In his book “A Savage War of Peace: Algeria, 1954-1962,” Horne wrote: “On Sunday 1 June de Gaulle presented himself to the National Assembly, the first time he had entered it since January 1946. The terms he announced for taking over were: full powers to rule by decree for six months, an enforced 'holiday' for the assembly for four months, and a mandate to submit a new constitution to the country. The Communists thumped their desks and shouted, 'le fascisme ne passera pas!,' (This Fascism will not pass!') For Algeria, the prime cause of his being there that day, de Gaulle proffered no formula ”
Despite the army's hopes, de Gaulle soon realized that Algerian independence was inevitable, and Paris began negotiations with the FLN. Bitter at what they believed was de Gaulle's betrayal, far-right factions within the army and extreme groups claiming to represent the Pieds-Noirs engaged in a series of unsuccessful assassination attempts against de Gaulle (this provides the setting for the wonderful thriller novel “The Day of the Jackal,” by Frederick Forsyth.”)
In September 1958, de Gaulle submitted his new constitution to the French people, who quickly ratified it. De Gaulle became the first president of the French Fifth Republic, the working constitutional government of France today, and served until 1969. France formally recognized Algerian independence in July 1962.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and teaches at Salt Lake Community College. An avid player of board games, he blogs at thediscriminatinggamer.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org