I Have Understood You

de Gaulle and Massu
de Gaulle and Massu, on his first official trip to Algeria. Photo Credit: President Charles de Gaulle and the Six Year War.

On May 28th, De Gaulle decided to break the deadlock and announced he was “in the process of establishing a republican government capable of assuring the unity of independence of the country”.[1] This came as a complete surprise to Pflimlin and the coalition, who hadn’t agreed to anything like that, and to Salan and Massu, who were less than a day from dropping paratroopers on the French capital. De Gaulle had managed to outwit everyone and stopped a civil war in its tracks. Pflimlin, Mollet and the others could only stare at the fait accompli that had dropped into their laps. De Gaulle got his rewritten Constitution, which now included a strong presidency that could effectively counterweight the legislature and provide stability, the army got de Gaulle, and Mollet and his socialist friends got a political platform that was at first surprisingly consistent with the Republican Front’s.

As for the Pieds Noirs and Algeria, de Gaulle’s first speech on the subject is the best instance of hedged betting this side of Constantine the Great’s personal approach to religion. Standing before a massed and jubilant crowd, he declared, “I have understood you”.[2]

Everyone was too excited to parse out just what the hell that actually meant for them, or to notice that the entire speech was a masterclass in ambiguity. Nowhere in this first speech did he explicitly refer to “French Algeria”.[3] De Gaulle praised the army, he praised the struggle that had been fought here, and he promised new elections and then, “we will see how to do the rest”. Though the speech came to be seen by the soon to be emigrating pieds noirs as the first step on the road to betrayal, at the time it was greeted with rapturous applause. Subsequently de Gaulle asked France and all its colonies to vote on the new Constitution, and even in Algeria the vote was triumphantly in favor of remaining a part of France. Only a few colonies opted for immediate independence.[4] For the FLN, the entire incident was an ugly shock. While the campaign to get yes votes had been aggressive and there were some accusations of Naegelen-esque ballot stuffing, it seemed that the majority truly did believe in de Gaulle’s power to save the country and save the war. With 80% of the vote, the new President de Gaulle came armed with a mandate to change the Algerian War.

de gaulle hearts and minds
de Gaulle on a hand waving, baby shaking Algiers parade. Photo Credit: President de Gaulle and the Six Year War

The high water mark for France came later the following year in 1959. The new army offensive was literally sweeping from one side of Algeria to the other, trapping the FLN in the net. Accompanying the campaign were 120,000 harkis, or Algerian Muslim soldiers. Some were former ALN fighters pressed into service who had surrendered under what de Gaulle called the “Peace of the Brave”, and others genuinely fought for what they thought was the best future for Algeria. On the home front the new Constantine plan doubled down on infrastructure, social spending, and investment in Algeria. It laid the groundwork for what de Gaulle had in mind, a referendum with three choices, integration, independence, or federation. De Gaulle clearly favored the latter as the balance between abandoning Algeria, and acknowledging a sobering reality he could not ignore.

This war could be won, but in the larger context of Algeria’s future, it would eventually be lost. While the ground situation was more against him than ever, Ferhat Abbas had done his best to elevate the political dimension of the conflict. On the other side of the now electrified and mined border in Tunis the FLN had founded a provisional government that was making the most of its gadfly status at the UN. Every year since 1955 the war had been debated at the UN, and every year it isolated the French a little more on the international scene.

Moreover, the war had already spilled over into France proper. In August 1958, three policemen had been assassinated in Paris by the FLN. In the resulting crackdown the Algerian community in the city had been subject to intense raids, and 5,000 Algerians had even been detained in two former centers used by the Vichy regime. If the echoes of Gestapo tactics had made the French troops in Algiers uncomfortable, seeing a repeat performance in Paris itself was infinitely more painful for the French people as a whole. As one former Resistance fighter bitterly noted, “they have not even had the good sense to choose a site which would not remind French patriots who are currently celebrating the anniversary of the Liberation of Paris of what took place there”.[5] For de Gaulle, the priority was and always would remain France. His federated third way was a means of splitting the difference and cutting their losses. Although de Gaulle did not recognize Abbas’ provisional government, he must have been heartened when Abbas made a few public noises suggesting that peace could be had under the federation.

Week of the Barricades
The Algiers Barricade. Photo Credit: President Charles de Gaulle and the Six Year War.

The sign that de Gaulle was going to try and wade back rather than march onwards was met with dismay from the settlers and parts of the army. Speaking to the Suddeutsche Zeitung, an angry Massu told the paper that “De Gaulle was the only man available. Perhaps the army made a mistake”.[6] Unlike his predecessors, de Gaulle was not a man to ignore talk like this. Massu suddenly found himself transferred to Metz. Other officers who had suspect loyalties also found themselves with pink slips or transfer orders. The French Algerian population erupted in response. Emerging yet again in his paratrooper’s costumer, Pierre Lagaillarde and a clique of pieds noirs seized a portion of Algiers on January 24th, 1960. When the police moved to break up the revolutionary’s barricades, the pieds noirs opened fire and killed more than a dozen offices. For mainland France, a France that had been fighting every day of the ironically dubbed “Post War” period, this was the point where support for French Algeria collapsed. For all the tension, civil war was not a line Paris and the vast majority of French citizens were willing to tolerate, and they rallied behind De Gaulle when he called,

“My dear and old country, here we are together, once again, facing a harsh test. By virtue of the mandate, that the people have given me and the national legitimacy that I have embodied over the last twenty years, I demand that everybody supports me whatever happens”.[7]

De Gaulle had stared down the new revolution, offering the stiff backbone the French government needed. While in later years this same backbone would be used to stonewall the British out of European integration, inexplicably call for an independent Quebec, and lead to French withdrawal from NATO, for now de Gaulle’s fierce sense of self-righteousness was exactly in the right place. But not even de Gaulle could sweep back the tide of events in Algeria. In time even his envisioned third way would turn out to be as much a mirage as every other plan floated by the French.

[1] Gagnon 2013

[2] “Je vous ai compris!”

[3] In case there was any doubt about the careful wireact de Gaulle was performing, just a few weeks prior on May 19th he wryly noted that “I am a man who belongs to no-one and who belongs to everyone”.

[4] Not that de Gaulle hadn’t put at least a thumb on the scale. For the colonies that chose independence all French aid and support was immediately severed.

[5] Einaudi, J-L., Rajsfus, M. (2001). The Silence of the Police- 16 July 1942-17 October 1961.

[6] Evans 2013

[7] Evans2013


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