A decade before the student uprising of May 1968, one of the months in French history was May 1958: After years in the political wilderness, General De Gaulle returned to power and established the Fifth Republic. Yet despite the monumental changes that that month brought, many in France today remain ignorant of the facts, or simplify or exaggerate them. When students or passers-by are asked what they know of the events of May 1958, it’s not uncommon to hear that De Gaulle launched a coup d’état, that he rose to power with the backing of the army, or that he was so enthusiastically welcomed that his only choice was to bury the Fourth Republic.
Speaking in front of a large crowd in Algiers on June 4, 1958, a few days after his return to power, De Gaulle exclaimed a brief phrase: “Je vous ai compris!” – “I understood you”. He follows with:
“I know what happened here. I see what you wanted to do. I see that the road you have opened in Algeria is that of renewal and fraternity… ”
In France, De Gaulle’s key line, “I understood you!”, is better known to the general public, yet still not clearly understood. In this article we are not going to analyse the question of whether De Gaulle pulled off a “democratic” coup d’état in 1958, nor if it was a “coup de force”, or anything else, but to try to see more clearly the complex and difficult events of that year.
French Algeria rises…
Prior to the events of May 1958 and his famous speech in June, De Gaulle has been out of power since 1946. France’s politically unstable Fourth Republic – afterwards nicknamed the le mal aimé, or “the unloved one” – had undergoes a major crisis with the Algerian War, squandering lives and resources in a conflict that it could not solve. Politicians were deeply divided on the path forward, and there was a vacuum of power since the fall of the government led by Prime Minister Félix Gaillard on April 15, 1958.
Police demonstrations in Algeria soon began to call for the return of De Gaulle to power. On May 8, French president René Coty turned to Pierre Pflimlin, known for being in favour of a negotiation with the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN). For the military and the “Europeans” of Algeria, it was out of the question for them to allow a “traitor” negotiate with “terrorists”. On May 13, the day after the constitution of the Pflimlin government, a protest in Algiers degenerated into a riot, and the main government building was occupied by protesters. A Committee of Public Safety (CSP) was formed under the presidency of General Jacques Massu, influenced by the Gaullist Leon Delbecque. The representatives, frightened, finally decided to trust Pflimlin’s government. The new chief executive then granted civilian and military powers to General Raoul Salan, who joined General Massu.
… and the Fourth Republic collapses
Everything advanced rapidly. The new government was unable to regain control, the CSP called upon De Gaulle to come out of his silence and take power, the state of emergency was voted by the French National Assembly and Guy Mollet, leader of the Socialist Party, asked General de Gaulle what his intentions were. De Gaulle then gave a press conference on May 19, where he insists on his desire to respect democracy and the French Republic. On the May 24 the military’s “Operation Resurrection” began: Paratroopers from Algiers seize Ajaccio, and then all of Corsica in a few hours. Then the rumour rose: paratroopers were about to land in mainland France. In Paris, there was panic. Gradually, elected representatives of various political parties rallied to the idea of a government led by De Gaulle.
While the “Operation Resurrection” was intended to continue, the May 28 announcement of the establishment of “a Republican government capable of ensuring the unity and independence of the country”, led by De Gaulle, puts an end to it. The elected representatives, whether they are sincerely rallied to the General or they fear a coup d’état, vote largely in favour of this government on June 1. Two days later, the National Assembly granted the government the power to draft a new constitution. On September 28, it was proposed and approved by 80% of voters. The Fourth Republic ceased to exist.
“I understand you!"… or not
Yet if the Fourth Republic fell without being really defended by the political class or France’s citizens, nothing presupposed the return of General de Gaulle. As French journalist and historian Paul-Marie de la Gorce wrote:
"We must have the humility to say this: nothing was sure, nothing was played. What began in 1958 could appear, with the passage of time, as obvious: in the view of the historian, however, nothing is more inaccurate. It was not gained that de Gaulle would come back to power, and when it was done, there was no guarantee that he would stay there for a long time, or that he could achieve his goals.” (Translation by the author, “La naissance de la Ve République”, p.27).
Having crossed the political desert and overcome many obstacles, De Gaulle arrived in Algiers on June 4, 1958. He tries to reassure everyone (military, colonists, Algerians) by pronouncing his famous but incomprehensible “I understood you!” Incomprehensible because no one is able to really explain today what he meant. Some thought that he supported French Algeria, others that he recognised the equality of the rights between all, or even the independence of the country. Finally, de Gaulle accepts – by pragmatism – to allow the independence of Algeria. He then suffers a series of crises: the barricades of Algiers, the putsch of the generals in April 1961 and several assassination attempts by the Organisation armée secrète (OAS) in the 1960s.
In the end, nobody at that time understood what De Gaulle wanted to say, and the misunderstanding seems to persist today. The history of May 1958 is rich qualitatively, but poor in terms of quantity. And the narrative of De Gaulle’s story still remains unfinished.