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Algiers putsch
Date 21–26 April 1961
Location French Algeria
Result Coup failed
Belligerents
France France French nationalists
Commanders
President Charles De Gaulle Generals Maurice Challe
Edmond Jouhaud
André Zeller
Raoul Salan
Strength
Government-loyal army 1st Foreign Parachute Regiment
Raoul Salan on the cover of TIME magazine

The Algiers putsch (French: Putsch d'Alger or Coup d'État d'Alger), also known as the Generals' putsch (Putsch des Généraux), was a failed coup d'état to overthrow French President Charles De Gaulle and establish an anti-communist military junta. Organised in French Algeria by retired French army generals Maurice Challe (former commander of the French Algeria corps), Edmond Jouhaud, André Zeller and Raoul Salan, it took place from the afternoon of 21 April to the 26 April 1961 in the midst of the Algerian War (1954–1962).[1]

The organisers of the putsch were opposed to the secret negotiations that French Prime Minister Michel Debré's government had started with the anti-colonialist National Liberation Front (FLN). General Raoul Salan argued that he joined the coup without concerning himself with its technical planning; however, it has always been considered a four-man coup d'état, or as De Gaulle famously put it, "un quarteron de généraux en retraite" (a quartet of retired generals).

The coup was to come in two phases: an assertion of control in French Algeria's major cities Algiers, Oran and Constantine, followed by the seizure of Paris. The metropolitan operation would be led by Colonel Antoine Argoud, with French paratroopers descending on strategic airfields. The commanders in Oran and Constantine, however, refused to follow Challe's demand that they join the coup. At the same time, information about the metropolitan phase came to Prime Minister Debré's attention through the intelligence service.

On 22 April, all flights and landings were forbidden in Parisian airfields, and an order was given to the army to resist the coup "by all means".[2] The following day, President Charles De Gaulle made a famous speech on television, dressed with his 1940s-vintage general's uniform (he was 71 and retired from the army) ordering the French people and army to help him.[3]

Contents

Context

The majority of the French people had voted in favour of French Algeria's self determination during the disputed referendum of the 8 January 1961 organised in metropolitan France. French citizens living abroad or serving abroad in the military were allowed to vote, but non-citizens in Algeria—who comprised the vast majority of the Muslim population—did not participate in the election.

Michel Debré's government started secret negotiations with the GPRA (Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic), the political arm of the FLN. On 25 January 1961, Colonel Antoine Argoud visited with Premier Debré and threatened him with a coup directed by a "colonels' junta"; the French Army was in no way disposed to let the French Algerian départements become independent.

Process

On 22 April 1961, retired generals Raoul Salan, André Zeller, Maurice Challe and Edmond Jouhaud, helped by colonels Antoine Argoud, Jean Gardes, and the civilians Joseph Ortiz and Jean-Jacques Susini (who would form the OAS terrorist group), took control of Algiers. General Challe criticised what he saw as the government's treason and lies toward French Algeria colonists and loyalist Muslims who trusted it, and stated that

the command reserves its right to extend its actions to the metropole and to reconstitute a constitutional and republican order seriously compromised by a government which illegally burst onto the eyes of the nation"[4]

During the night, the 1st Foreign Parachute Regiment (1e REP), composed of a thousand men (3% of the military present in Algeria) and headed by Hélie de Saint Marc took control of all of Algiers' strategic points in three hours.

The head of the Parisian police, Maurice Papon, and the director of the Sûreté nationale, formed a crisis cell in a room of the Comédie-Française, where Charles De Gaulle was attending a presentation of Racine's Britannicus. The president was informed during the entracte of the coup by Jacques Foccart, his general secretary to African and Malagasy Affairs and closest collaborator, in charge of covert operations.

Algiers' population was awakened on 22 April at 7 am to a message read on the radio: "The army has seized control of Algeria and of the Sahara". The three rebel generals, Challe, Jouhaud and Zeller, had the government's general delegate arrested, as well as Jean Morin, National Minister of Public Transport, Robert Buron, who was visiting, and several civil and military personages. Several regiments put themselves under the command of the insurrectionary generals.

General Jacques Faure, six other officers and several civilians were simultaneously arrested in Paris. At 5 pm, during the ministers' council, Charles De Gaulle declared: "Gentlemen, what is serious about this affair, is that it isn't serious".[5] He then proclaimed a state of emergency in Algeria, while left wing parties, trade union and the Ligue des droits de l'homme (LDH, Human Rights League) called to demonstrate against the military's coup d'état.

The following day, on Sunday 23 April, General Salan arrived from Spain and refused to arm civilian activists. At 8 pm, General De Gaulle appeared in his uniform on television, calling on French military personnel and civilians, in the metropole or in Algeria, to oppose the putsch:

An insurrectionary power has established itself in Algeria by a military pronunciamento... This power has an appearance: a quartet of retired generals. It has a reality: a group of officers, partisan, ambitious and fanatic. This group and this quartet possess an expeditive and limited know-how. But they see and understand the Nation and the world only deformed through their frenzy. Their enterprise lead directly towards a national disaster ... I forbid any Frenchman, and, first of all, any soldier, to execute a single one of their orders ... Before the misfortune which hangs over the fatherland and the threat on the Republic, having taken advice from the Constitutional Council, the Prime Minister, the president of the Senate, the president of the National Assembly, I have decided to invoke article 16 of the Constitution [on the state of emergency and full special powers given to the head of state in case of a crisis]. Starting from this day, I will take, directly if needs arise, the measures which seems to me demanded by circumstances ... Frenchwomen, Frenchmen! Help me!"[6]

Due to the popularity of a recent invention, transistor radio, De Gaulle's call was heard by the conscript soldiers, who refused en masse to follow the professional soldiers' call for insurgency. Trade unions decided for the next day a one hour general strike against the putsch. The few troops which had followed the generals progressively surrendered. General Challe also gave himself up to the authorities on 26 April, and was immediately transferred to the metropole. The putsch had been successfully opposed, but the article 16 on full and extraordinary powers given to De Gaulle was maintained for five months. "The Battle of the Transistors"—as it was called by the press—was quickly and definitely won by De Gaulle.[7]

Trials and amnesty

A military court condemned Challe and André Zeller to fifteen years of prison. However, they were granted an amnesty and had their military positions restored five years later. Raoul Salan and Jouhaud escaped. Salan was condemned in absentia to death penalty (later commuted to life sentence) as was Jouhaud. Salan and others later founded the OAS, a far right terrorist group which attempted to disrupt the April 1962 Peace Evian Accords. A July 1968 act granted amnesty; a November 1982 law reintegrated the surviving generals into the Army. Raoul Salan, Edmond Jouhaud, and six other generals benefitted from this law.

Notes and references

  1. ^ French National Audiovisual Institute INA, Les Actualités Françaises - 03/05/1961
  2. ^ Debré's official speech in the 20h news report, ORTF public television channel, 22 April 1961
  3. ^ French National Audiovisual Institute INA, JT 20H - 23/04/1961
  4. ^ Challe: le commandement réserve ses droits pour étendre son action à la métropole et reconstituer un ordre constitutionnel et républicain gravement compromis par un gouvernement dont l'illégalité éclate aux yeux de la nation.
  5. ^ De Gaulle: Ce qui est grave dans cette affaire, messieurs, c’est qu’elle n’est pas sérieuse.
  6. ^ De Gaulle: Un pouvoir insurrectionnel s'est établi en Algérie par un pronunciamiento militaire. [...] Ce pouvoir a une apparence: un quarteron de généraux en retraite. Il a une réalité: un groupe d'officiers, partisans, ambitieux et fanatiques. Ce groupe et ce quarteron possèdent un savoir-faire expéditif et limité. Mais ils ne voient et ne comprennent la Nation et le monde que déformés à travers leur frénésie. Leur entreprise conduit tout droit à un désastre national. [...] Voici l'Etat bafoué, la Nation défiée, notre puissance ébranlée, notre prestige international abaissé, notre place et notre rôle en Afrique compromis. Et par qui ? Hélas ! hélas ! hélas ! par des hommes dont c'était le devoir, l'honneur, la raison d'être de servir et d'obéir.
    Au nom de la France, j'ordonne que tous les moyens, je dis tous les moyens, soient employés pour barrer partout la route à ces hommes-là, en attendant de les réduire. J'interdis à tout Français et, d'abord, à tout soldat, d'exécuter aucun de leurs ordres. [...]
    Devant le malheur qui plane sur la patrie et la menace qui pèse sur la République, ayant pris l'avis officiel du Conseil constitutionnel, du Premier ministre, du président du Sénat, du président de l'Assemblée nationale, j'ai décidé de mettre en cause l'article 16 de notre Constitution. A partir d'aujourd'hui, je prendrai, au besoin directement, les mesures qui me paraîtront exigées par les circonstances.[...]
    Françaises, Français ! Aidez-moi !
  7. ^ Alistair Horne, The French Army and Politics, 1984, p. 82, ISBN 0911745157, 978-0911745153.

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