LONDON: By coincidence, this is a busy year for round-number anniversaries for France’s greatest leader since Napoleon. Charles de Gaulle was born 120 years ago in Lille. He died 40 years ago at his home in Colombey-les-deux-Églises, expiring of a heart attack as he played solitaire one evening. Seventy years ago, he delivered his celebrated call to resistance over the BBC after flying to London from France as it collapsed in June 1940.
This year also marks a much less noted anniversary, an occasion on which de Gaulle showed how his rare combination of determination, political skill, and rhetorical ability could be brought to bear to face down determined opposition. It was a central moment in the establishment of the Fifth Republic, which continues to this day.
The war in Algeria played the key role in enabling de Gaulle to return to power in May 1958, at the age of 67. Though his memoirs paint a characteristic portrait of a leader who knew what he was doing, research for my new biography shows that his policy towards the crisis across the Mediterranean combined hope and frustration. He hoped that France could dominate the National Liberation Front (FLN) militarily, and was frustrated at the extremely messy political situation on the ground and the difficulty of persuading the settlers that maintaining the status quo was untenable.
In 1958, he told a crowd in Algiers made up mainly of pieds noirs Europeans “Je vous ai compris” (“I have understood you”). But, by 1960, euphoria had given way to rancor among those whom he had used to regain office but who now saw him as a traitor to be neutralized along with the regime he had brought into being.
The catalyst for what came to be known as “Barricades Week” was an interview published in the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung with the parachute general Jacques Massu, in which he said that part of the army regretted having called de Gaulle back to power, did not understand his policy, and was disappointed that he had become “a man of the left.” Massu, a convinced Gaullist, should have known better than to say such home truths publicly, whatever his own frustrations. He was promptly sidelined to a command in provincial France. After a stormy meeting with de Gaulle at the Élysée Palace, Massu telephoned his chief of staff, Colonel Antoine Argoud, who had been pressing for a coup.
A general strike was called, and militant students threw up barricades in the center of Algiers. When police attacked with tear gas, pieds noirs opened fire. In the ensuing gun battle, 14 members of the security forces and eight demonstrators were killed, and 200 people were wounded. “The hour has come to bring down the regime,” the extremist ideologue, Jean-Jacques Susini declared. “The revolution will start from Algiers and reach Paris.”
De Gaulle was at Colombey, but returned immediately to Paris. An official who saw him in the corridor of the palace recalled him muttering: “What a business! What a business!” At a cabinet meeting, he insisted that the challenge to the new republic had to be put down.
The prime minister, Michel Debré, was sent to Algiers, but the rebels treated him contemptuously, and he flew back empty handed. Rumors flew of the creation of a shadow government by extremists in Paris. Members of the presidential military staff were told to carry handguns. Summoning Massu’s successor, General Jean Crépin, de Gaulle told him, “The Europeans do not want the Arabs to make a choice, [but] the Muslims do not want to be Bretons. If the army collapses, it is Algeria [and] France which collapses.”
The decisive moment came when de Gaulle, in military uniform, went on television to demonstrate his mastery of the new medium. “Well, my dear and old country, here we are again facing a heavy test,” he said. Insisting that self-determination was the only way ahead, he called on the army to reject even passive association with the insurrection and instructed it to re-establish public order. If the state bowed before the challenge it faced, “France would be no more than a poor, broken toy floating on an ocean of uncertainty,” he warned.
Within 15 minutes of the General’s face fading from the screen, 40 army units in Algeria declared their loyalty. The men at the barricades were persuaded to leave their stronghold; the insurrectionary leaders were either detained or escaped to Spain.
The defeat of the military revolt was the first time that the republican authority of Paris had been asserted over the pieds noirs who had helped to bring down the Fourth Republic. De Gaulle’s firmness and rhetoric — aided, it must be said, by the fumbling of the rebels — established the primacy of the state.
The next day, de Gaulle’s face was drawn, but he was resolute and full of energy. Ministers who sympathized with the settlers, notably the long-time Gaullist Jacques Soustelle, were sacked. The National Assembly granted de Gaulle the power to rule by decree for a year. Trade unions held a symbolic one-hour strike to back the government. An opinion poll gave the General 75 percent backing.
The Fifth Republic was safe, and a historic page had been turned. The disdain felt by de Gaulle, a man of the north, for the emotional settlers across the sea had deepened. Two years later, after de Gaulle’s steeliness repulsed a second uprising, the Evian peace agreements between France and the FLN brought Algeria’s independence.
Jonathan Fenby is the author of The General: Charles de Gaulle and the France He Saved. This commentary is published by the Daily News Egypt in collaboration with Project Syndicate, www.project-syndicate.org.