Saturday, June 3, 2023

Flashback, June 1958: De Gaulle Returns to End 4th French Republic, Begin the 5th

Sixty-five years ago this month, Charles de Gaulle returned to power as Premier of France at the start of June 1958, much in the same manner in which he stepped into the public eye in 1940: to rescue the country he loved with mystical fervor.

The WWII Resistance movement commander had stepped away from the government he was widely expected to lead in 1946 and stayed on the sidelines.  The dozen intervening years confirmed his opinion that the Fourth French Republic created after the war would be fatally flawed by legislative wrangling and executive impotence.

Only two Socialists were included in de Gaulle’s government and no Communists, reflecting the general’s suspicions of the latter party dating back to WWII, when, despite its critical support of his leadership of the Resistance, he came to view it as a dangerous revolutionary force.

Though the National Assembly had voted 329 to 224 to put him in power, nobody knew exactly how the 67-year-old de Gaulle would implement the unlimited powers it gave him for six months. Part of his agenda—or at least what could be ascertained from his sometimes vague public utterances on the subject— was to prepare a reform of the republic to be ratified by referendum.

What was still unclear was how he would resolve the crisis that had convulsed the nation and precipitated his return to leadership: the Algerian war of independence. When the conflict broke out in 1954, 1 million European settlers (the pieds-noirs, “black feet”) lived on Algerian land. With so many Frenchmen there, the government was reluctant to leave its colony.

What resulted was one of the most vicious conflicts in postwar decolonization, with a cycle of insurgency followed by counterinsurgency marked by torture. By the time the conflict ended in 1962, 25,000 French troops had died and hundreds of thousands of Algerians.

In France itself, the unrest exacerbated the instability that de Gaulle foresaw would plague the Fourth Republic. Twenty-four cabinets were formed under 16 prime ministers during the 12-year regime. Just as bad, according to a 2004 analysis in the British Journal of Political Science on the republic’s cabinets by John Huber and Cecilia Martinez-Gallardo, they were also staffed by ministers who were relatively inexperienced.

Understandably chafing at this inexperience and instability, reactionary elements in the French military, learning nothing from its recent debacle in French Indochina, resisted this new anti-colonial movement, especially when the latest French government indicated it was prepared to negotiate with the National Liberation Front, or FLN.

The anger of the military brass had climaxed on May 13, 1958 with an uprising of French partisans in Algiers, supported by the 10th paratroop division of General Jacques Massu. It was, in essence, a putsch, with Massu and his movement forming a Committee of Public Safety, calling for de Gaulle to return to power in Paris.

The instincts towards Catholicism, conservatism, and monarchism that de Gaulle inherited from his father may have steered him away from many radical or even liberal currents in 20th-century thought. But above all, the general was a realist.

His growing realization that the economic, political, and human costs of the Algerian War could no longer be contained moved him towards overtures to the Algerian independence movement that deeply disappointed his most revanchist followers.

De Gaulle’s final acknowledgement of Algerian independence sparked another putsch, this time an August 1962 assassination plot against him—the most serious of more than 30 attempts on his life over two decades. (The latter plot inspired Frederick Forsyth’s bestselling 1971 political thriller, The Day of the Jackal.)

Washington watched the developments around de Gaulle with special interest, remembering well the prickly relations the Free French leader had maintained with the Western Allies during WWII.

Winston Churchill had been annoyed by the general but ultimately tolerated him as the best alternative to the collaborationist Vichy regime in WWII. Franklin Roosevelt abided him only on sufferance, with the President’s son Elliott quoting him in the 1946 memoir As He Saw It: “de Gaulle is out to achieve one-man government in France. I can’t imagine a man I would distrust more.”

Amory Houghton, U.S. Ambassador to France, sent a June 1, 1958 telegram that functioned as a flashing yellow light about the general to the U.S. State Department. While noting that “the interests of the United States will be served by de Gaulle’s success,” Houghton also warned that “the General’s character suggests that problems will increase and it is doubtful how well the General grasps and will comprehend the complexity of military and political relationships which have grown up since he retired from the political scene.”

Two years later, an intelligence report prepared in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research was equally skeptical about the outcome of de Gaulle’s Algerian maneuvering:

“Even if de Gaulle is able to establish autonomous organs in Algiers, it is unlikely that peace could be restored, at least in the short run, without political negotiations with the FLN, which both he and the army strongly resist. de Gaulle’s policy, unless it is modified on this point, is therefore probably inadequate to bring peace to Algeria in the foreseeable future.”

What the State Department did not foresee was that, within five months, de Gaulle would squelch a "Generals' Putsch" intended to seize control of Algeria and topple his own regime. That strengthened his hand internally, leading to the Evian Accords with the FLN in 1962.

On a broader front, de Gaulle delivered on his promise to deliver a new constitution, in effect ushering in a new Fifth Republic--or, as Lara Marlowe characterized it in a September 2018 Irish Times article, "The Beginning of French Politics As We Know It." The French President effectively ended the chaos that had characterized his nation's postwar era, partly through the executive-oriented measures of the new constitution, partly through his own considerable mystique.

That mystique, erected on the basis of the general’s indomitable defiance of his nation’s Nazi occupiers, was maintained by his height and hauteur. It was a fearsome thing for another politician to look up at the high forehead and Cyrano nose of the six-foot, five-inch head of government. He didn’t leaven his interactions with charm, as FDR and Churchill could do.

Washington and London, as they anticipated, had to get used to this prickliest of allies—one so intent to preserve France’s ability to act unilaterally on the world stage that he pushed his country to become a nuclear power, withdrew from NATO, and kick-started the Canadian separatist movement with the cry, “Vive le Qu├ębec libre!"

According to biographer Jean Lacouture, de Gaulle was a "grand nomad" who sometimes had to "take to the wilderness for his true stature and the sheer gap left by his absence to be perceived." 

If confirmation were needed of this contention, it came through the events of late spring 1958--and, indeed, since 1969, when his resignation as President after a decade in power left a vacuum in moral authority that his successors, for all the constitutional authority he bequeathed them, have struggled to fill.

Fortunately, he did not turn into a Bonaparte but something like a French George Washington--a military leader who withstood the siren call of absolutism, a President who left those who followed him in office with enormous executive power to be used for good or ill, and a leader with a grand vision for his country--or, as de Gaulle described it on the first page of his war memoirs, "France is like a princess in a fairy story, Madonna in a fresco.”

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