The 1950s and 60s were a more fraught time in French history than most Americans realize. It was a time where senior generals deployed their forces against French territory and threatened Paris and the sitting president twice in just three years.
The first coup came in 1958, following years of unrest. The French Fourth Republic, the government formed in 1946, a couple of years after the liberation of France from Nazi control, was never steady. Among other problems, an unpopular and bloody war in Algeria, then a French colony, was a millstone around the nation’s neck.
Members of the French Army operate in Algeria.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Richard M. Hunt via State Archives of North Carolina)
In May, 1958, the government attempted to open negotiations with their major opponent in French Algeria, the Algerian National Liberation Front. If the war was unpopular, capitulating was worse. Rioters in French Algeria occupied an important government building.
The situation continued to degrade until May 24, when the troops got involved.
Military members in French Algeria launched Operation Resurrection, invading Corsica with little bloodshed. Gen. Jacques Massu, one of the senior military officials in French Algeria and the coup forces, agreed with others that the paratroopers could take Villacoublay Airfield, just a few miles from Paris.
Gen. Charles de Gaulle and his men were greeted by huge crowds when Paris was liberated, and he enjoyed enduring popularity for years.
(U.S. Office of War Information photo by Jack Downey)
The French Fourth Republic, facing mounting unrest at home and the growing possibility of an invasion by its own forces, collapsed. Gen. Charles de Gaulle, who had avoided politics since 1946 but retained massive support of the protesters and France at large, took power. A new constitution was approved in September and the Fifth French Republic was born.
For the French people, this was a potential return to stability and sensible government. For forces in French Algeria, this was seen as the chance to focus on the business of fighting rebels.
But the French people outside of Algeria were still not fully behind the war — and it only got worse over the following years.
Workers set up communications for the Ministry of Armament and General Liaisons, a part of the resistance during the Algerian War that survived the end of the war and became part of the permanent government there.
By 1960, de Gaulle was working to negotiate peace with the rebels and the morale of troops stationed there plummeted. Mid-career and senior officers began refusing orders as some troops tried to avoid dying in the final days of a lost war while others attempted to achieve some victories that would strengthen the French position and prevent a second Vietnam.
It was against this backdrop that the retired and popular French Gen. Maurice Challe met with senior officers and proposed a second coup, this one against de Gaulle. He was joined in the inner circle by generals Edmond Jouhaud, Andre Zeller, and Raoul Salan, but the group enjoyed the support of other senior officers.
In the final hours of April 21, 1961, French paratroopers took over important buildings and infrastructure in French Algeria, especially the capital, Algiers. Challe took to the radio the next morning to call on all other troops in French Algeria to cease supporting Paris and follow him instead. It had been less than three years since some of those same troops had supported the coup that brought de Gaulle to power.
Challe threatened Paris itself in his radio address, saying he, “reserved the right of extending the action to metropolitan France to reestablish a constitutional and republican order.”
De Gaulle gave his own public address, while wearing his old uniform, where he called on the people of French Algeria and France as a whole to resist the attack on the Fifth Republic.
France, for the most part, followed de Gaulle. Workers staged a symbolic, hour-long strike to show that they could shutdown industry if the coup continued. Citizens rallied and prepared to occupy the airfields around Paris with cars and bodies to prevent any planes from French Algeria landing.
The six-foot, five-inch Charles de Gaulle was popular at home and imposing everywhere he went, but he faced numerous attempts to force him and his government from power by vocal and well-organized opposition, including some generals in French Algeria.
(John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library)
In French Algeria, the sentiment was more closely split, but too few soldiers supported the coup and too many supported the government for it to succeed.
Many pilots and crews flew their planes out of the country and sabotaged their own aircraft to prevent further use. Soldiers refused to leave their barracks or organized their own ruling committees if they thought their officers were loyal to the coup.
Oddly, despite de Gaulle calling for resisting “by all means” and ordering loyal troops to fire on rebel troops, there were no known cases of troops loyal to France attacking or inflicting casualties on rebelling troops. Rebel troops are thought to have killed less than five people, a tragic loss of life, yes, but much less than would be expected in a rebellion with organized battalions on each side.
By April 25, it was clear that the coup attempt had failed and many of its leaders fled, including three of the four leading generals. Challe was left alone in barracks with the commander of the paratrooper regiment that had supported him, Helie de Saint Marc. Challe told Saint Marc, “you are young, Saint Marc. We are going to pay a heavy price. I will certainly be shot. Let me surrender alone.”
Saint Marc remained in the barracks and the men were arrested the following morning. Challe was later sentenced to 15 years in prison. He served a little over five before receiving a pardon from de Gaulle. Saint Marc was sentenced to 10 but also received a pardon.
The Fifth Republic, despite its rocky start, endures today. Algeria achieved independence in 1962, ending France’s colonial empire.