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De Gaulle's moment: 1958

Charles de Gaulle, the war hero, waiting in retirement for his country's call, drives a hard bargain when the moment comes. He will resume the leadership of the nation only if he is given unrestricted powers for a period of six months and the authority to draft a new constitution for a fifth French republic. On 2 June 1958 the national assembly accepts his terms.

De Gaulle turns his attention first to the crisis which has caused his return to power. On June 4 he visits Algiers, to be received by an ecstatic crowd of settlers who greet him as their saviour. But as they listen to his speech, from the balcony of Government House, their enthusiasm becomes muted.

Far from taking the expected right-wing line, De Gaulle talks of equal rights for Europeans and Muslims. He praises the Algerian nationalists as courageous fighters, and holds out the prospect of an amnesty. 'To these men I, de Gaulle, open the door of reconciliation.'

But the immediate next step is the preparation of a new constitution and the holding of a referendum to win the approval of French citizens around the world. When the details are announced, the constitution gives a much greater executive role to the president than under the previous republic. He may even assume emergency powers in a crisis.

The referendum is ready for the voters in September 1958. In addition to seeking approval for the proposed constitution, it asks voters in overseas territories whether they want to sever all links with France or to be part of the French Community (known as La Communauté). All the territories except Guinea vote to remain within La Communauté, and the constitution of the Fifth Republic is approved by a large majority of 78% of the votes cast.

The most pressing task facing the new president remains Algeria. In the short term the situation there becomes worse rather than better. But within four years it is solved, with the precisely opposite result from the settlers' hopes of de Gaulle. The expected defender of French Algeria presides over Algerian independence.

The thorny path to independence:1959-1962

In September 1959 de Gaulle offers Algerians a choice once violence in the colony has ceased. Within four years of the return of peace they are to have a free vote on three possible options for their future: full political integration with France; association with France as an independent entity; or complete secession as an independent nation.

The immediate effect of this proposal is even greater unrest in Algeria, where the settlers are outraged at any suggestion that the link with France might be severed. In January 1960 there are barricades in the streets of Algiers in an uprising which lasts ten days until the army, loyal to de Gaulle, brings it to an end.

In April 1961 a more serious revolt is led by four senior generals in the French army in Algeria. It too collapses after four days, when de Gaulle reacts with great firmness and assumes special emergency powers. But the failed uprising prompts the final escalation of terrorist violence in the colony.

Two of the generals surrender when the uprising fails. The other two, Raoul Salan and Edmond Jouhaud, go underground to continue their resistance. They form the extremist OAS (Organization de l'Armée Secrète) to engage in a campaign of terror against Muslims in Algeria and against political targets in mainland France. In September 1961 an attempt is made to assassinate de Gaulle.

With FLN terrorist activity also continuing in Algeria, the colony by now requires the permanent attention of some 500,000 troops. The only practical solution is discreetly acknowledged when the French government, in the autumn of 1961, begins secret negotiations with the provisional Algerian government in Tunis (the GPRA). In March 1962 a cease-fire is agreed at Évian-les-Bains, to be followed by a referendum on Algerian independence.

This agreement sparks off an immediate escalation of OAS terrorist activity, but in April 1962 the people of France endorse the Évian terms with a 90% vote of approval. Two weeks later the OAS leader, Raoul Salan, is captured in Algiers.

During the summer of 1962 about three quarters of the French colonists flee from Algeria to France, leaving only some 250,000 (reduced by the end of the 1960s to fewer than 100,000). The departure of the predominantly right-wing element among the settler population is reflected in the referendum held in Algeria on 1 July 1962. Nearly six million votes are cast in favour of independence, less than 17,000 against. Two days later de Gaulle formally recognizes Algeria as an independent nation. In October the new state becomes a member of the United Nations.

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