General Discontent

FLN protest
The protest in Algiers. Note the mix of national flags, as well as French and Arabic peppered through the language. The paratroopers were called in to break up the response. Photo Credit: de Gaulle and the Six Year War

In December 1960, a spontaneous riot in the major Algerian cities in support of the FLN caught everyone, including the FLN by complete surprise. Like an iceberg, most of the Muslim population’s sympathies had stayed out of sight. Hearts and minds had mostly not been won, and no amount of promises could gloss over the incomparable damage the army’s campaign had caused to the French reputation. The point to holding on to what de Gaulle now termed “this box of sorrows” was even further damaged as more of France’s colonial empire turned their thoughts to independence.[1] Algeria was no longer the crown jewel of overseas France, just a black hole that absorbed more than ten percent of the national budget each year.

With the writing clearly on the wall, de Gaulle and his Prime Minister Michel Debre[2] orchestrated another referendum on self-determination for Algeria, and on January 8th, 1961 75% of the exhausted French mainland and, in spite of a boycott by the FLN, fully 69% of Algerian voters cast their ballots in favor of it. By April, de Gaulle began to sprinkle in phrases like “the Algerian Republic”. His third federated option had been weighed, measured, and found wanting. With independence out of the bag, Prime Minister Debre opened a quiet line of negotiations with Abbas and the FLN. However, neither side was going to let de Gaulle quietly extricate himself. As the talks lurched onwards, the same French generals and pieds noirs who had helped propel de Gaulle to power moved to take matters into their own hands.

Algiers_putsch_1961
The four generals on April 23rd, shortly before realizing the terrible mistake they had made. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

On April 21st, 1961, three retired French generals, coordinating with the now exiled General Salan in Spain launched a more formal military coup in Algeria. Within three hours the rebel paratrooper units had seized every major military objective in Algeria. However, the speed of the Putsch was somewhat deceptive. While much of the pieds noirs units had backed the coup, the vast majority of French troops in Algeria were either pro Gaullist or hedging their bets, and both opted to stand down rather than risk layering a civil war on top of the current struggle. In fact compared to May 1958, the attempt seemed downright childish. Even demoted some of the needed figures like General Massu[3] had stayed away from the plot, which hadn’t even accounted for the logistics of feeding and powering Algeria. Back in uniform once again, de Gaulle made another impassioned plea to the French people, and called on them to resist the coup by any means. While the suggestion of violence hung in the air, the plot unraveled bloodlessly. French resistance took the form of a mainland general strike in solidarity. More than half of the French air force in Algeria flew their planes back to the mainland, or faked mechanical trouble to deny the Junta the wings they needed. Hundreds of protestors staged sit ins on the runways. And in the Sahara, a nuclear bomb was detonated as part of a planned test on the 25th, ahead of schedule to deny the plotters access to a doomsday scenario.[4] By April 26th, gelded of all menace, the generals’ last few units surrendered.[5]

OAS logo
The functional, if unimaginative logo of the OAS. Just as creatively, Salan’s codename within the Organization was “Sun”. Photo Credit: Shame on You, Wikimedia Commons.

With the army now well and truly brought to heel, the pieds noirs began to adopt the methods of the FLN themselves. In a pattern repeated by nationalists the world over, disaffected French like Lagaillarde and General Salan formed the Organisation de l’armée secrete (OAS). The primary goal of the OAS was to keep Algeria French, by any means necessary. Even by the standards of the ugly seven year war, the OAS were considered vicious, and the French army responded in kind.  Torture by French authorities was routine, and after years of fighting insurgency in Algeria, they had become dangerously good at it when it was turned on their own rebels.

Still, the OAS was a dangerous wild card in the proceedings. Multiple attempts were made to assassinate de Gaulle, military targets were hit on both sides, and when all else failed OAS operatives would vent their rage by shooting Muslim and Jewish Algerians. Politically, the OAS fell on the rightward side of the spectrum, taking most of their ideology from Franco and the Vichy government in a place that could be hesitantly called the line between nationalism and fascism. Yet while the FLN was fighting to reclaim what was lost, the OAS were grasping for a better past that only existed in their rose colored minds. Already the pieds-noirs were beginning to flee to France. OAS terror attacks on travel agents and airports could not stop the flow.

[1] This is not a short list. In the summer of 1960 no less than 14 African Countries came into being from French holdings.

[2] This is the same Debre so concerned about French Algeria he had possibly supported a bazooka themed solution to the perceived lack of zeal from General Salan. Evidently the two had swapped roles for the coming knife fight.

[3] Massu’s loyalty to de Gaulle became legendary. In 1968 when faced with a more self-imposed crisis, de Gaulle had asked, “So, Massu, are you still stupid?” Prompting the rejoinder, “still a Gaullist, General!”

[4] Alt-history writers take note! There is quite a story to be spun if the coup’s leadership had gotten a nuclear bomb..

[5] Moral of the story, never engage in a staring contest with Charles de Gaulle. Incidentally, this plot is another patch of fertile ground for conspiracy theories, and there is some speculation that either American or German intelligence agencies had quietly endorsed the coup.

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