May 1958 crisis in France

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The May 1958 crisis (or Algiers putsch or the coup of 13 May) was a political crisis in France during the turmoil of the Algerian War of Independence (1954–1962) which led to the collapse of the Fourth Republic and its replacement by the Fifth Republic led by Charles de Gaulle who returned to power after a twelve-year absence. It started as a political uprising in Algiers on 13 May 1958 and then became a military coup d'état led by a coalition headed by Algiers deputy and reserve airborne officer Pierre Lagaillarde, French Generals Raoul Salan, Edmond Jouhaud, Jean Gracieux, and Jacques Massu, and by Admiral Philippe Auboyneau, commander of the Mediterranean fleet. The coup was supported by former Algerian Governor General Jacques Soustelle and his activist allies.

May 1958 crisis
Date13–29 May 1958
Result Fall of the French Fourth Republic
France French Government Units of French Army, French Navy and French Air Force
Commanders and leaders
France René Coty
Pierre Pflimlin
Général d'Armée Raoul Salan
Général d'Armée Jacques Massu
Général d'Armée Aérienne Edmond Jouhaud
Admiral Philippe Auboyneau
Jacques Soustelle
Pierre Lagaillarde
Government-loyal armed force Counter force armed force
Casualties and losses

The coup had as its aim to oppose the formation of Pierre Pflimlin's new government and to impose a change of policies in favor of the right-wing partisans of French Algeria.


Recurrent cabinet crises focused attention on the inherent instability of the Fourth Republic and increased the misgivings of the French Army and of the Pieds-noirs (European Algerians) that the security of French Algeria, an overseas department of France, was being undermined by party politics. Army commanders chafed at what they took to be inadequate and incompetent government support of military efforts to end the war. The feeling was widespread that another debacle like that of Indochina in 1954 was in the offing and that the government would order another overly precipitous pullout and sacrifice French honor to political expediency.[1] The result was the return of Charles de Gaulle.[citation needed]

The coupEdit

After his tour as Governor General, Jacques Soustelle had returned to France to organize support for de Gaulle's return to power, while retaining close ties to the army and the settlers. By early 1958, he had organized a coup d'état, bringing together dissident army officers and colonial officials with sympathetic Gaullists. On 13 May, right-wing elements seized power in Algiers and called for a Government of Public Safety under General de Gaulle. Massu became chairman of the Public Safety Committee and one of the leaders of the revolt.[2] General Salan assumed leadership of a Committee of Public Safety[3] formed to replace the civil authority and pressed the junta's demands that de Gaulle be named by French president René Coty to head a government of national union invested with extraordinary powers to prevent the "abandonment of Algeria". Salan announced on radio that the Army had "provisionally taken over responsibility for the destiny of French Algeria". Under the pressure of Massu, Salan declared Vive de Gaulle! from the balcony of the Algiers Government-General building on 15 May. De Gaulle answered two days later that he was ready to "assume the powers of the Republic".[4] Many worried as they saw this answer as support for the army.[2]: 373–416 

At a 19 May press conference, de Gaulle asserted again that he was at the disposal of the country. When a journalist expressed the concerns of some who feared that he would violate civil liberties, de Gaulle retorted vehemently:

Have I ever done that? Quite the opposite, I have reestablished them when they had disappeared. Who honestly believes that, at age 67, I would start a career as a dictator?[2]

On 24 May, French paratroopers from Algeria landed on Corsica by aircraft, taking the French island in a bloodless action called "Opération Corse." Subsequently, preparations were made in Algeria for "Operation Resurrection," which had as objectives the seizure of Paris and the removal of the French government, through the use of paratroopers and armoured forces based at Rambouillet.[5] "Operation Resurrection" was to be implemented if one of three scenarios occurred: if de Gaulle was not approved as leader of France by Parliament, if de Gaulle asked for military assistance to take power, or if it seemed that the French Communist Party was making any move to take power in France.[6]

Political leaders on many sides agreed to support the General's return to power with the notable exceptions of François Mitterrand, who was a minister in Guy Mollet's Socialist government, Pierre Mendès-France (a member of the Radical-Socialist Party, former Prime Minister), Alain Savary (also a member of the French Section of the Workers' International (SFIO)), and the Communist Party. The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, a noted atheist, said, “I would rather vote for God,” as he would at least be more modest than de Gaulle. Mendès-France and Savary, opposed to their respective parties' support of de Gaulle, would form together, in 1960, the Parti socialiste autonome (PSA, Socialist Autonomous Party), ancestor of the Parti socialiste unifié (PSU, Unified Socialist Party).[7]

De Gaulle's return to power (29 May 1958)Edit

Demonstration on rue du Faubourg-du-Temple in Paris on 1 June

On 29 May President René Coty told parliament that the nation was on the brink of civil war, so he was "turning towards the most illustrious of Frenchmen, towards the man who, in the darkest years of our history, was our chief for the reconquest of freedom and who refused dictatorship in order to re-establish the Republic. I ask General de Gaulle to confer with the head of state and to examine with him what, in the framework of Republican legality, is necessary for the immediate formation of a government of national safety and what can be done, in a fairly short time, for a deep reform of our institutions."[8] De Gaulle accepted Coty's proposal under the precondition that a new constitution would be introduced creating a powerful presidency in which a sole executive, the first of which was to be himself, ruled for seven-year periods. Another condition was that he be granted extraordinary powers for a period of six months.[9]

De Gaulle's newly formed cabinet was approved by the National Assembly on 1 June 1958, by 329 votes against 224, while he was granted the power to govern by ordinances for a six-month period as well as the task to draft a new Constitution.[citation needed]

The May 1958 crisis indicated that the Fourth Republic by 1958 no longer had any support from the French army in Algeria, and was at its mercy even in civilian political matters. This decisive shift in the balance of power in civil-military relations in France in 1958 and the threat of force was the main immediate factor in the return of de Gaulle to power in France.[citation needed]

The new constitutionEdit

De Gaulle blamed the institutions of the Fourth Republic for France's political weakness — a Gaullist reading still popular today. As he commissioned the new constitution and was responsible for its overall framework, de Gaulle is sometimes described as the author of the constitution, although it was effectively drafted during the summer of 1958 by the Gaullist Michel Debré. The draft followed closely the propositions in de Gaulle’s speeches at Bayeux in 1946,[10] leading to a strong executive and to a rather presidential regime — the President being granted the responsibility of governing the Council of Ministers,[11] as well as to the adoption of article 16, granting "extraordinary powers" to the president if a state of emergency was proclaimed, and of bicameralism.[citation needed]

Although most politicians supported de Gaulle, Mitterrand, who opposed the new Constitution, famously denounced "a permanent coup d'état" in 1964.[12] On 28 September 1958, a referendum took place and 79.2% of those who voted supported the new constitution and the creation of the Fifth Republic. The colonies (Algeria was officially three departments of France, not a colony) were given the choice between immediate independence and the new constitution. All colonies voted for the new constitution and the replacement of the French Union by the French Community, except Guinea—which thus became the first French African colony to gain independence, at the cost of the immediate cessation of all French assistance.[2]: 407 

De Gaulle was elected President of the French Republic and of the African and Malagasy Community on 21 December 1958 by indirect suffrage. He was inaugurated on 8 January 1959. In the meanwhile, de Gaulle had met the German chancellor Konrad Adenauer on 14 September 1958 at his home in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises; he had sent a memorandum to US President Dwight D. Eisenhower on 17 September 1958, recalling his will of national independence; he also took financial measures on 27 December 1958 to reduce the state deficit, and, in Algeria, called for the "peace of the brave" (paix des braves) in October 1958.[citation needed]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Dien Bien Phu: Did the US offer France an A-bomb?". BBC news magazine. 5 May 2014. Retrieved 5 May 2014.
  2. ^ a b c d Jonathan, Fenby (2010). The General Charles de Gaulle and the France he saved. Simon & Schuster. pp. 383–4, 389. ISBN 9781847394101.
  3. ^ The term "Committee of Public Safety" recalls the body of that name which acted as the de facto executive government in France during the Reign of Terror (1793–94), a stage of the French Revolution. In effect, by using this term Massu and Salan claimed to be the new Robespierres.
  4. ^ French: « prêt à assumer les pouvoirs de la République »
  5. ^ Crozier, Brian; Mansell, Gerard (July 1960). "France and Algeria". International Affairs. Blackwell Publishing. 36 (3): 310. doi:10.2307/2610008. JSTOR 2610008.
  6. ^ Daniel Gagnon, "Algeria, De Gaulle, and the Birth of the French Fifth Republic." (Providence College History Student Papers. Paper 15. 2014) online.
  7. ^ Philip Thody, The Fifth French Republic: Presidents, Politics and Personalities (1998).
  8. ^ Jonathan Fenby (2013). The General. p. 396. ISBN 9781620878057.
  9. ^ W. Scott Haine (2000). The History of France. Greenwood Press. p. 180.
  10. ^ Charles De Gaulle (June 16, 1946). "Discours de Bayeux [Speech of Bayeux]" (in French). Archived from the original on May 17, 2011.
  11. ^ See the debates during the July Monarchy and the Bourbon Restoration concerning the role of the King and the role of the President of the Council
  12. ^ François Mitterrand, Le Coup d'Etat permanent, 1964

Further readingEdit

  • Alexander, Martin S. and John FV Keiger, eds. France and the Algerian War, 1954–1962: Strategy, Operations and Diplomacy (Routledge, 2013)
  • Fenby, Jonathan. The General: Charles de Gaulle and the France He Saved (2010)
  • Jackson, Julian. De Gaulle (2005) pp. 70–79
  • Sowerwine, Charles. France since 1870: Culture, Society and the Making of the Republic (2009) ch. 21