A Critical Evaluation of Charles De Gaulle's Handl Essay

This essay has a total of 2758 words and 13 pages.

A Critical Evaluation of Charles De Gaulle's Handling of the Algerian Insurrection


The 1950s was not a particularly good decade for France. The Fourth Republic, which had
been established in the aftermath of the Second World War, remained unstable and lurched
from crisis to crisis. Between 1946 and 1954, there had been a war in French Indo-China,
between a nationalist force under Ho Chi Minh and the French. The war was long and bitter
and towards the end, the French suffered the ignominy of losing the major fortress of Dien
Bien Phu to the guerrillas on 7 May 1954. An armistice was sought with Ho Chi Minh, and
the nations of North and South Vietnam emerged from the ashes of the colony. It is
entirely likely that the success of the guerrillas influenced the Algerian
insurrectionists, the National Liberation Front(FLN), in tactics and in the idea that the
time was ripe to strike. It is clear that the FLN employed similar methods to those
developed by the nationalists under Ho Chi Minh.1


For several months, France was at peace. The insurrection began on 1 November 1954. The
insurrection precipitated the fall of the Fourth Republic. Charles de Gaulle, hero of the
Second World War, became President of France in 1958, and was intent on securing a
political solution to the insurrection, rather than one based on force. His efforts were
largely successful in avoiding a civil war in France, and ending the insurgency - although
it took four years to do so. It has been estimated that more than a million Algerians died
in the insurrection.2


Before 1954, Algeria was not considered to be a French colony - rather it was seen as an
integral part of France. The region was composed of departments, like those of the
mainland. There were over a million white French nationals living in Algeria at the time
and around eight million Muslims.3 This was a greater proportion of French nationals than
in the other major North African colonies of France - Morocco, and Tunisia.4 Although
there were benefits to remaining with France, the colonial administration was heavily
weighed against the Muslims - particularly with regards to voting rights. In 1936, for
instance, the Popular Front Government of Blum introduced legislation to the Assembly
proposing to extend French citizenship to over twenty thousand Algerian Muslims.5 The
initiative failed when all the European mayors of Algerian towns resigned in protest.


After the First World War, a number of Algerian political parties with nationalist
interests began to emerge, one of the first being the Algerian Communist Party (an adjunct
to the French Communist Party) in the 1920s.6 A number of other parties were formed and,
much later, some coalesced into the Revolutionary Committee for Unity and Action (CRUA) in
March 1954. This organisation was backed by President Nasser of Egypt and other countries
of the Middle East.7 The leaders of the CRUA met in Switzerland on 10 October 1954, they
created the FLN, and planned the rebellion to begin on 1 November.


The insurrection had continued for three and a half years before the end of the Fourth
Republic. Between the start of the crisis and May 1958 (the fall of the Republic), there
had been six different French governments.8 France had been at war more-or-less
continuously since 1939. French public opinion was shifting, especially after the
humiliating back-down from the attack on Egypt (which supported the Algerian FLN) in the
Suez Crisis of 1956. There had also been revelations, despite censorship, that the French
military was employing torture in the war.9 Concerns were growing about whether the
military was fully under the control of the civilian government. Such concerns were
exacerbated by the Faure Conspiracy. The conspiracy was discovered in January 1957, when
the second in command of Algiers, General Faure, was discovered to be in contact with
extremist European elements. He was sentenced to thirty days in confinement. It was
believed there was a plot to kidnap Lacoste, the Resident Minister, and install a military
government in Algeria.10


A rebellion was finally attempted on 13 May 1958 in Algiers. The Gaullists took control of
the situation after hours of confusion. A Committee for Public Safety was established
under General Massu. Shortly before midnight, Massu made a statement: “We appeal to
General de Gaulle, the only man who is capable of heading a Government of Public Safety,
above all the parties, in order to ensure the perpetuation of French Algeria as an
integral part of France.”11 After much political wrangling, de Gaulle (who distanced
himself from the acts of the rebels in Algiers) was legitimately invested as President by
the National Assembly on 1 June. It was now his responsibility to end the Algerian crisis.


Leaving Algeria would be easier said than done. De Gaulle needed to weigh up his options
and proceed with a plan that would result in the least possible amount of bloodshed. There
was also the ever present risk of a coup against the Fifth Republic from right wing
officers in the army. Additionally, there were threats to de Gaulle’s own personal safety,
with a nearly successful attempt on his life in August 1962 - well after the resolution of
the crisis.12 The same forces that desired de Gaulle’s death may have, if given the
opportunity, precipitated a civil war - another risk that de Gaulle had to avoid.


De Gaulle had demanded and received constitution making powers from the National Assembly.
The new constitution which he presented to the country implicitly eliminated the principle
of French Union that was in the 1946 constitution. Colonialism was now becoming an
expensive and time-consuming proposition. The colonies of Indo-China, Tunisia and Morocco
had already obtained their independence by the time de Gaulle ascended to power. Article
86 of de Gaulle’s proposed constitution said that any overseas territory could have its
independence, provided that the territory’s legislative assembly had a vote to that effect
confirmed by the population in a referendum.13 The overseas territories of France as well
as Metropolitan France voted on whether to adopt the new constitution in September 1958.
It was understood that any overseas territory voting ‘No’ would automatically be deemed to
have opted for independence. The vote of 28 September resulted in the endorsement of 79
percent of the voters.14 A ‘No’ vote in Algeria would not have resulted in independence
for Algeria, however, because of the ‘special status’ of the country (that is, that it was
considered to be part of Metropolitan France). The significant aspect of Article 86 was
that France recognised the right of colonies to self-determination. There were several
reasons for the adoption of this policy. By 1958, colonies had outlived their usefulness
and were beginning to become a burden for France.15 There were also the altruistic liberal
ideals of allowing nations to govern themselves. A final reason was that at the core of
French foreign policy at that time was a degree of anti-American imperialism. The stance
that was adopted via Article 86 would allow France to pose as a champion of national
independence.16


Constitutional reform was one thing, but from the beginning of his presidency, de Gaulle’s
main concern was the resolution of the war in Algeria. The problem for de Gaulle was that
the army did not desire to suffer another humiliating retreat as there was from Indo-China
a few years before, the settlers were determined to retain their rank and privilege, and
the FLN wanted to continue the war together with its supporters.17


The immediate option de Gaulle favoured was some vague association between Algeria and
France. He attempted a policy of constructive engagement with the Algerian people. On 3
October 1958, five days after the constitutional referendum, de Gaulle announced an
economic aid package for the development of Algeria amounting to approximately US$200
million per year.18 The intent was to drive France and Algeria closer together, thereby
abrogating nationalist tendencies. This approach should be contrasted with the view that
de Gaulle expressed while discussing Algerians in February 1958, well before he became
President: “They are not Provincials or Languedocians. They are Arabs and will never be
integrated.”19 The idea of association was, however, flawed - its goal was to influence
future generations of Algerians, yet it would do nothing to change the views of the FLN in
the short term, and the insurrection would continue.


Despite the obvious flaws of the integrationist approach, de Gaulle went ahead with
reforms in Algeria. The constitution provided a single, unified electorate of voters in
Algeria, with suffrage for Muslim women. Most of the deputies elected in the 30 November
elections favoured a French Algeria.20 This reflected the integrationist image of de
Gaulle’s government.


While de Gaulle sought to engage the Algerian population, he continued the war against the
military branch of the FLN, the Army of National Liberation (ALN). In 1959, what became
known as the Challe Plan was carried out. There was a purge of over 1500 French officers
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