De Gaulle et l'Algérie

Algeria occupies an important place in the history of Charles de Gaulle. Algeria was where he began in May 1943 to prepare for the liberation of French territory and the political reconstruction of the country, with the creation of the CFLN (French Committee for National Liberation) which on 3 June 1944 became the GPFR (Provisional Government of the French Republic). The conflict in Algeria was responsible for bringing the General back to power in 1958: French citizens in Algeria, opposed to the appointment of Pierre Pflimlin on 13 May 1958, because of his supposed readiness to negotiate with the independence movement, embarked on a mass protest and encouraged General Salan to issue an appeal to General de Gaulle. In their eyes, the General was the sole defender of a French Algeria.  Due to the pressure brought to bear by the French living in Algiers and the collapse of political will at home, de Gaulle was called upon to form a government, by the President of the Republic, René Coty. After the National Assembly voted in his favour, de Gaulle became President of the Council - the last under the Fourth Republic.

In contemporary memory, however, the founder of the Fifth Republic is still the man who led Algeria to independence and, no doubt, the only man who could have done so.

The question therefore arises as to whether the General was for a French Algeria or an Algeria for Algerians. Historians are divided. For some, he acted according to a specific policy aimed at independence; for others, he explored different solutions, as far as and including approval for Algerian sovereignty.

As the head of the GPRF until January 1946, de Gaulle took steps to ensure equality between native and French Algerians in economic and social terms. He refused to countenance disorder, however, and ordered the suppression of the Constantine riots in May 1945.

By the time he returned to power in June 1958, Tunisia and Morocco were already independent but the situation in Algeria had seriously deteriorated. The Front de Libération National (FLN) rebelled on 1 November 1954 which led to a military intervention.  In 1957, 400 000 French conscripts were stationed in Algeria to maintain order. The French in Algeria were convinced that de Gaulle would keep Algeria a French possession, while the French in France called on de Gaulle to find a solution, any solution, to the war. On 4 June 1958, de Gaulle declared to a huge French crowd in Algiers, "I have understood you!" even as he announced root and branch reforms. In Mostaganem, he was subsequently heard (though only once) to shout "Vive l’Algérie… française !"

Behind these unforgettable phrases, however, de Gaulle presented a more complex face to the skilled observer. In October 1958, in Constantine, his cry was "Vive l’Algérie et vive la France!" and he invited the FLN to enter into a "peace of the brave" with France. Clearer still, in 1959 he confided to a reporter that "the Algeria of our father's days is dead and, if we cannot understand that, we will die along with her".

De Gaulle the realist was thus able to lead public opinion away from the positions of partisans of a French Algeria. The process found its first expression on 16 September 1959, when the Head of State set out three options for the future of Algeria and announced the right of Algerians to self-determination. While de Gaulle's preference was for an Algerian Algeria closely linked to France, he did not rule out either the continuance of French sovereignty over the territory nor even the "secession" of Algeria, but only after peace was restored. 

The stage was a decisive one, but did nothing to end the conflict. De Gaulle refused any form of official negotiations with the FLN, which increased its terrorist attacks in Algeria. The French in Algeria began to worry about the new directions de Gaulle was taking and riots broke out, in particular during the week of the barricades in Algiers from 24 January to 2 February 1960. The General visited Algeria and made his "camp-fire" tour (3-7 March 1960) to try and explain his policy to the troops.

The President of the Republic was convinced that Algerian sovereignty was the only possible solution to the conflict and he continued to try and convince the French people of this. At the same time, of course, black Africa was gaining its independence. On 8 January 1961, de Gaulle organised a referendum on self-determination for Algeria, a prospect which won the support of 75.2% of the voters. Public support was  a great advantage for de Gaulle, who now had to face the wrath of partisans of a French Algeria. A number of officers in Algeria went so far as to deny the authority of the Head of State, who was also the commander in chief of the armed forces. On 22 April 1961, headed by Generals Salan, Jouhaud, Challe and Zeller, they seized power in Algiers.

To meet the threat, the President exercised his full powers under article 16 of the Constitution. On television, where he appeared in uniform, he firmly condemned this attempted putsch by a "rump of retired generals", and brought this attempted coup d'état to an end after only four days. The supporters of a French Algeria formed the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS) and embarked on a campaign of terrorism in mainland France and Algeria. They made numerous assassination attempts on de Gaulle (in particular on 8 September 1961 at Pont-sur-Seine), and continued their attempts even after the independence of Algeria (at Petit-Clamart on 22 August 1962, for example).

The climate was therefore tense when the final phase of negotiations between representatives of the French government and the FLN began in Evian on 7 March 1962. These negotiations followed on from the meetings at Melun (25 to 29 June 1960) between the French government and the Gouvernement Provisoire de la République Algérienne or GPRA (Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic), and were made possible by the French army's total control of the territory but produced no conclusive results. The Evian accords, signed on 18 March 1962, brought an end to the hostilities and gave independence to Algeria. De Gaulle hoped that they would form the basis for Algeria and France to "march fraternally together along the road of civilisation". The Evian accords were approved by 90.7% of the population of mainland France (in the referendum of 8 April 1962). 

Between November 1954 and the end of 1962, tens of thousands died in Algeria. The Evian accords were followed by a series of tragedies, such as the FLN massacre of pro-French Algerians, in particular of the Harkis (Algerians who served in the French armed forces) who were recruited against the General's instructions, the massacre of independence supporters by the OAS, and the massive exodus of the French colonists, the "pieds-noirs". The scars that marked the French population as a result of this war - which the French government has only just recognised as such - would take years to heal.