Operation Resurrection

De gaulle 1961 bundesarchiv
de Gaulle in 1961, mercifully out of uniform for once. Photo Credit: Bundesarchiv Deutschland.

What became known as the May 1958 Crisis was actually the result of several conspiracies, spun together by the Algerian War into a political hurricane. As the presumptive Pflimlin government began to take shape and the rumblings of the army grew louder, one of the groups that took careful note of the situation were the supporters of Charles de Gaulle. While the man himself had been notably absent from the political scene since 1947, like an egotistical French King Arthur he was hoping to reappear in the nation’s hour of need to “release the deus ex machina, in other words make my entrance”.[1] To that end Gaullists like former governor-general Soustelle and long time party loyalists had quietly scoped out their prospects in Algeria. If the crisis they needed to prompt de Gaulle’s apotheosis was coming, they weren’t about to let it go to waste.

On the other side were the hard right elements within the pieds noirs and the French Army.. In a parallel with the Northern Irish Ulster Defense Force, some in the French Algerian community had already taken force into their own hands by 1958. The earliest had been Robert Martel’s Union française nord-africaine, which had actively planted bombs in the Casbah during the Battle of Algiers. Martel had been even been charged as a terrorist, but had been subsequently released. Now he served as a new focal point for the Algerian wing of the conspiracy, known as the Group of Seven. The clique had the ear of General Raoul Salan, ironically the same man targeted by the pieds noirs in the l’Affaire de Bazooka[2] back in 1957.

Salan and Soustelle
Salan and Soustelle in the aftermath of May 13th. Photo captured from Public Domain documentary Charles de Gaulle and the Six Year War (1960).

Of these men, the other standout member was Pierre Lagaillarde, a 27 year old student and heir to generations of romantic revolutionary activism. His Great-Grandfather had died atop the barricades in 1851, memorably shouting out the last line, “I’ll show you how one dies for 25 sous a day!”.[3] Pierre himself rounded out his self importance by wearing a paratrooper’s uniform as often as he could, though he had left the service years before. [4] Insofar as he and the others thought of de Gaulle, they had their hopes but worried he would be too soft. But they were also painfully aware that while French Algeria itself was a tinder box waiting to explode, mainland France was far less engaged. In short, the Gaullists had a leader but no movement, and the Group of Seven needed a public face for their coup. To both parties the match, while not made in heaven, would do. All they needed now was for the FLN to strike the match.

On May 9th, 1958, the FLN executed three French soldiers for torture, rape, and murder, and the entirety of Algeria erupted in outrage. It’s hard to say whether the soldiers in question had done so. Rape wasn’t the most uncommon horror unleashed by French soldiers, nor was murder in cold blood. But the men had all been captives for 18 months with only a show trial. While the French had been periodically guillotining FLN leaders as well, the kind of public execution the men received was as jarring then as ISIL beheadings are today. The perception that Pflimlin would even consider negotiating with these monsters was now beyond the pale in Algeria.

The crisis kicked into high gear on May 13th. In amidst a storm of editorials from Algerian papers condemning a Pflimlin government, General Salan laid a wreath honoring three dead French soldiers in front of a crowd of almost 100,000. The ceremony stoked outrage. The price for the war had already been too high to leave now, and the crowd marched on the General Government building. In their old timey WWI era helmets the French riot police tried to hold the line with tear gas, but the crowd was already too large. As the police began to fall back towards the building, several units of paratroopers arrived, but they didn’t move to intervene and the crowd stormed the building. While it was no Bastille, there is a tipping moment in every revolution, and this was it for the French Fourth Republic. When one of the paratroopers was asked about the riot, he answered “no casualties, fortunately, except the Republic, and that’s not serious”.[5]

Jacques_Massu-portrait Rama
General Jacques Massu. There are a hundred photos of the man, but sadly none are in the public domain. Illustration Credit: Ramas

In the aftermath, General Jacques Massu stepped forward, and wrested control of a newly revived staple of Revolutionary France, the Committee of Public Safety.[6] Massu didn’t trust the revolutionaries in the streets, and he announced publicly that the Committee would seek de Gaulle’s recall to power. With de Gaulle’s name out of the bag, there was no question of anyone else. On May 15, General Salan stood on the balcony of the recently sacked General Government Building and in front of the gathered demonstrators ended his speech with “Vive l’Algérie Française! Et Vive de Gaulle!” Later that day, de Gaulle broke his silence on the issue, and announced that “I am ready to assume the powers of the republic”.

The name de Gaulle was a magical one for the French of 1958. For years they had seen the same tired parade of leaders come and go, and no one could seemingly solve the Gordian knot that was Algeria. Yet off on the sidelines, there was de Gaulle, the now 67 year old veteran of both World Wars, the voice that had spurred them to action on a pirate signal of BBC. He had even said he would not participate in the “convolutions of this absurd ballet”, and it seemed that the French had finally tired of it as well.

By the following day, Algeria was host to a surreal party as French, Berber, and Arab Algerians all danced in the streets. To this day, no one knows what to make of this moment. Was it a coerced celebration? Or was it a genuine outburst of joy? After all, de Gaulle had said as well that Algeria would someday be independent, and had enfranchised much of the populace. On the other side there must have been some who remembered the grisly aftermath of Setif and Guelma that followed right on the heels of World War II. Everyone could see what they wanted to see in the now slightly pudgy living legend. But no one bothered to ponder what de Gaulle might see in them, and he personally held the army and the Algerians at a firm arm’s length. For Pflimlin and the democratically elected government, de Gaulle’s name must have made their blood run cold.

Pierre_Pflimlin_par_Claude_Truong-Ngoc_1975
Prime Minister Pierre Pflimlin in 1975. He would go on to become President of the European Parliament. Photo Credit: Claude Truong Ngock

All flights between Algeria and the mainland were canceled, but both sides moved cautiously. It was obvious to everyone that they were on the edge of a full scale civil war. Pflimlin especially had reason to worry, as the vast majority of the military was already in Algeria, and there was a strong chance that the French Air Force and Navy would turn on him. Still hoping to defuse the crisis, Pflimlin reached out to de Gaulle. In response to leftist accusations that he was using the army to strong arm his way to power, de Gaulle mockingly noted, “why do you think at 67 I would start a career as a dictator”?[7] Indeed to his total credit, de Gaulle had mustered all of this support without ever answering the question of what he would do once he was in control. Even his ardent supporters like Massu and Salan would only find out later, to their chagrin. Yet Pflimlin wanted some assurance that de Gaulle was not going to simply rule as a military overlord, and he refused de Gaulle’s condition that the Fourth Republic’s constitution be rewritten.

In the military equivalent of a loud throat clearing noise, the rebels responded to the stagnating talks by seizing Corsica. The island switched sides without firing a shot, and it was now clear the rebel paratrooper units held a knife to the throat of France. The government despaired. Already the military units in France refused a tentative plan to recapture the island. If it came to it, the leftists still in the coalition expected to  die on the barricades. In a fantastic moment, de Gaulle, Pflimlin, and Mollet met at 2 am in the shadow of a Napoleonic era terrace- the site of his first coup and rise to imperial power. Understandably put out by the leftist’s symbolic place of meeting, de Gaulle stonewalled the conversation, and the three men departed no close to a resolution. But there was no more time to decide. Unknown to the three men, plans had been drawn up for Operation Resurrection, the invasion of Paris was set to launch in less than 72 hours.

[1] Horne 2006.

[2] While the term’s perfectly descriptive of what actually happened, it’s also perfectly hilarious to a non-French speaker.

[3] Horne 2006. Alternate last line, “ouch”.

[4] Unsurprisingly, Lagaillarde had close ties with notorious right wing politician Jean-Marie Le Pen. Father of the current far right insurgent Marine le Pen, who has done her level best to be as xenophobic as her father with less of the naked anti-Semitism.

[5] Gagnon, D. (2013). Algeria, de Gaulle, and the Birth of the Fifth Republic. Available at: http://digitalcommons.providence.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1014&context=history_students

[6] Or as Google Translate would have the author believe, “The Committee of Public Hello”.

[7] World Heritage Encyclopedia (2016). The Crisis of May 1958. Available at: http://www.gutenberg.us/article.aspx?title=may_1958_crisis

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