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From Counter-Insurgents to Right Wing Terrorists: French Military Politicization in Algeria, 1955-1961

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From Counter-Insurgents to Right Wing Terrorists: French Military Politicization in Algeria, 1955-1961

Nathan Grau

 “French forces in Algeria: this is General Challe; I am here in Algiers with Generals Zeller and Jouhaud and in close liaison with General Salan so that we might honor our oaths, the oath of the Army to keep Algeria, so that our dead will not have died for nothing…would you renounce all of your promises, abandon our Muslim and European brothers, abandon our Muslim cadres, soldiers, and auxiliaries to the vengeance of the rebels? Do you want Mers-el-Kebir and Algiers to tomorrow be Soviet bases? If you accept [this outrage,] then you will have lost everything, even your honor…The Army is above all in the service of France, and the guarantor of her national territory. The Army will not fail in its mission.”[i]

The internal divisions and hesitancy that brought the 1961 General’s Putsch to its unceremonious end only four days after General Maurice Challe “threw down the gauntlet” in Algiers were evident soon after the uprising began. In the newscasts covering the Army’s long-predicted crossing of the Rubicon, Generals Jouhaud, Zeller, and Salan glanced at the thousands of frenzied pieds-noirs assembled in solidarity at the Algiers Forum with looks of apprehension.[ii] It was as if three of the four key players in the Army’s last-ditch effort to keep Algeria French could not believe they had actually taken power, and the sheepish smiles that they flashed to the cameras did little to inspire the confidence of the thousands of soldiers who had jeopardized their careers and their lives in support of the generals. President de Gaulle was not Pierre Pflimlin, and April 1961 was no May 1958. [iii]

It was only General Challe, de Gaulle’s revered Republican soldier, who stared defiantly and confidently into the camera. Challe, the man least involved in the morass of plots that had paralyzed Algiers since 1958, was the last hope for French Algeria. While the other star-struck generals would go underground after the coup attempt and continue their hopeless struggle under the blood-soaked banner of the Organization de l’Armée Secrète (OAS), Challe would once again be alone when he returned to the Metropole in disgrace less than a week after he had declared the Army’s independence from Paris.[iv] To contemporaneous observers, the transformation of one of France’s most illustrious leaders into one of its greatest enemies defied reason. It was possible, however, to see in Challe’s steely gaze a hardening and resentment that had taken years to form. Betrayal of the Army, France’s politicized officers figured, was the one constant that the otherwise chronically unstable governments in Paris had pursued since the end of the Second World War. Overcoming the treasonous parliamentarians was the key to saving France. It was a crucial miscalculation.

Contemporary commentators, government officials, and historians began undermining the legitimacy and political dangers posed by the General’s Putsch from the moment that it was first underway. Dismissed at the time by President Charles de Gaulle as a plot hatched by “a tetrad of superannuated generals,”[v] the coup attempt has subsequently been cited as an “OAS seizure of power in Algiers”[vi] and as evidence of the “unreasonableness” of French Algeria loyalists. Subsequent attempts to analyze the Putsch have erased the agency and individuality of the insurrectionary officers of 1961 by appropriating their uprising for use as the supposed “acid test” of the Fifth Republic. Indeed, de Gaulle and his supporters have instead relegated these men to nameless pawns in a triumphalist narrative pitting Republican Gaullists against desperate fascists resisting history itself.[vii] In truth, the generals’ uprising in Algeria was neither irrational nor spontaneous but was instead the logical culmination of nearly a decade of politicization and alienation.

The confluence of the Army’s explicit ideology, its operational practices, and its ability to wage war in the political vacuum left by an unstable civil authority fed into mutually reinforcing processes of intransigence and insular thinking. When this cycle pitted their interests against those of the state, not only did many of France’s most elite units rise in rebellion, but they also launched their campaign of anti-state terrorism using techniques that they had hitherto assigned to the rebel Front de Libération Nationale (FLN).[viii] This extreme transformation did not occur overnight. Instead, and as was frequently expressed in the written and oral testimony of its officers, an organizational-cultural revolution within the Army preceded its attempts at political “revolutions” in 1958 and 1961. “Military culture” in Algeria permeated both soldiers’ self-perceptions and their approaches to the battlefield, and military intellectuals utilized the Army’s already-strong social cohesion as a means of propagating certain “ideologies, beliefs…and myths” that strengthened their bonds but isolated them from the Metropole.[ix] These “myths” in turn institutionalized irrationality by providing the officer corps with a globe-spanning narrative of Communist invasion that they could then use to justify strategic and tactical decisions that made little or no sense to outside observers. From the Battle of Algiers to the Suez Crisis, much of the Army’s belligerent, illogical, and brutal conduct between 1954 and 1961 can be made legible only with an investigation of the unconscious value-systems that soldiers used to describe and act upon the complex and unforgiving world that they lived in. 

Explicit Ideology as Guerre Révolutionnaire and Intégration

The Army’s slide into politics began a world away from Algeria in the jungles of Indochina, where surrender at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 forced France’s humiliated soldier class to face the previously unimaginable consequences of their defeat by a “revolutionary” army. The embittered losers of Dien Bien Phu justified their failure by contrasting the strong ideological cohesion of the insurgent Viet Minh with the instability and divisiveness of the Fourth Republic. From the powerful emotional and professional obligations many Indochina veterans felt to make sense of their experiences emerged the elaborate, mythical theory of guerre révolutionnaire.[x] The adherents of guerre révolutionnaire, unable to comprehend the appeal of Marxist egalitarianism to peasants who they viewed as essentially inert, instead attributed their defeat to the Viet Minh’s ability to “mobilize the bodies and souls of the entire population in the service of a cause that [was] innately foreign” to them.[xi] As a result of this misunderstanding, their memorialization of Indochina ignored the near-century of colonial domination that had preceded the rise of the nationalists. Instead, these theorists promised the Army that it could win in Algeria so long as it used the correct “techniques.” As a “proscription against the anxiety [that] the trauma” of defeat had “caused,” Revolutionary Warfare theory was spared from serious critical reflection and instead gained widespread acceptance within the officer corps.[xii] The “lessons” these men thought they had learned from their last war were central in shaping their subsequent doctrinal outlook in Algeria, and in downplaying the centrality of colonial oppression in the successes of the Vietnamese Communists, Revolutionary Warfare theorists institutionalized a cycle of self-denial that virtually ensured they would fail.

Put into practice, the Army’s proscriptions for dominating “bodies and souls” closely mirrored the methods of their adversaries. Once they had recognized that conventional tactics were no longer suitable for modern war, advocates of guerre révolutionnaire determined that total control through “parallel [political and social] hierarchies” was the key to victory.[xiii] In order to avoid the chases and ambushes that had plagued it in Indochina, the Army needed to ensure that “everyone [informed] for it, without any distinction.”[xiv] The population’s transformation from an extraneous category to the main objective of modern warfare in turn necessitated that soldiers begin playing more political, social, and cultural roles in Algeria. The lack of a coherent government policy there, however, led many officers to the conclusion that their success in war necessitated they take a course independent of the unpredictable will of the state.

Guerre révolutionnaire’s most powerful visions, which complimented its highly influential calls for the institution of “parallel hierarchies,” were geopolitical. To legitimize both their politicization and their continued struggles against indigenous nationalists, French soldier-intellectuals recast colonial struggles in Cold War terminology. Agents of Communist power, they argued, used the “Cairo-Peking-Moscow axis” as a sanctuary from which they could “strangle” the colonial “outposts” of Western Civilization.[xv] The struggle for Algeria, in the minds of Revolutionary Warfare theorists, was far more than a war of national liberation.[xvi] Instead, “the least deviation from the idea of ‘French Algeria’” left the “door wide open for Communist invasion.” [xvii] Harkening back to the civilizationalist-primitive imagery of the Roman Empire in decline, they argued that “the French Union, from its ‘outposts’ in Indochina to its Parisian ‘redoubt,’ [occupied] and [guarded] numerous positions on [the] route [to Communist world domination].”[xviii] In stark contrast to the American idea that colonialism aggravated Third World grievances that could be exploited by Communists, the French position emphasized the central importance of the colonial system in ensuring the safety of the entire world. Diplomatic efforts to roll back the “boogeyman of ‘colonialism’” were merely “[tactics] adopted by the Russians to expand their influence.”[xix] By this logic, sustaining France’s empire evolved from a necessary evil tolerated by the Americans into Europe’s last hope of resisting Communist invasion.

In the domestic sphere, which even to Socialists included France’s overseas territories, the intellectual-soldier class’s treatment of political dissent highlighted its deep skepticism of liberal governance and parliamentary democracy. By equating the enemy as “one’ from Paris to Saigon, from Algiers to Brazzaville,” these officers explicitly placed the French Communist Party- a legal political organization that frequently captured one quarter of the French popular vote- in the same company as those Revolutionary Leftists who they fought and killed on a regular basis throughout the colonial world.[xx] Unlike the Americans who, embodied by McCarthy, drove themselves into nationalist frenzies insisting that their government had been infiltrated by Moscow’s puppets, the French had an entirely different view, arguing that:

it thus becomes necessary for us to renounce the classic and convenient notion of the ‘Fifth Column:’ the international Communist party is not at the service of Russia; it is Russia that is the soldier of Communism…the ‘Soviet Bloc’ represents nothing more than one part of its power: one of its ‘bases.’[xxi]

Fundamental assumptions laid bare, Revolutionary Warfare theory was unlike any contemporary geopolitical framework because it rejected the idea of Soviet control entirely. The Russians did not determine the agenda of international Communism, it drove them. Subsequent historical analysis has revealed that on this point guerre révolutionnaire thinkers were totally incorrect. However, the ease with which they assigned Communist ideology a mysterious, independent agency was a product of their paranoid, embattled, and imaginative sensibilities.

In order to respond to the diffuse and expanding power of their enemies, the French Army pressured the government in Paris to give them carte blanche to fight the “Communists” with whatever methods they deemed necessary. Nationalist groups like the FLN “aided…the party of World Revolution” until they were totally absorbed by it.[xxii] Thus, revolutionary movements throughout the Empire were essentially Communist despite their “outward nature.” [xxiii] In North Africa, the French conflation of Arab nationalism and World Communism provided ready justifications for both the Suez invasion and the brutal intensification of the war in Algeria.[xxiv] The revolutionary enemy of France’s imagination, a product of an increasingly segregated and despairing Army, was “from everywhere, in France and in the World.”[xxv] To combat this limitless enemy, all methods were justified. 

The linkages between the Army’s fear of French decline and the brutality it directed against the indigenous population, while never explicit, are nonetheless clear.  In a war where success relied on public perception as much as battlefield maneuvers, “it [was] necessary that all forms of complicity” with the “enemy” be “rendered impossible or treated, in the same manner as the crime of treason, by special courts.”[xxvi] These “special courts” would rarely materialize, replaced instead by widespread extrajudicial imprisonment, torture, and execution.[xxvii] Despite the violent hostility military intellectuals regularly directed at Metropolitan Communist newspapers, politicians, and party members, leftists in France were largely spared the violent fates of their allies in the colonies.[xxviii] To the relief of the French Left, the government in Paris showed little enthusiasm for guerre révolutionnaire’s “solutions” to the supposedly global threat that French Communists posed. The Army would be forced to limit its crusade to the colonies, a source of political conflict that would plague the Fourth Republic throughout the war.

The wide availability of guerre révolutionnaire texts in official military journals and newspapers ensured that even if its practical implications were not immediately clear, its ideological precepts were widely understood amongst officers.[xxix] As the war intensified and the French Army looked with desperation for a comprehensive worldview it could use to make sense of and defeat the FLN, Revolutionary Warfare theorists saw their ideas acclaimed by the highest levels of the military hierarchy.[xxx] Comforted by the theory’s globe-spanning implications and its rationalization of the Indochina defeat, the Army converted an otherwise intangible set of ideas into doctrine within the limits that its “strong collective understandings about the nature of [its] work” provided.[xxxi] In so doing, officers of all ranks revealed a previously unexamined proclivity towards right-wing militancy that, in conjunction with minimal civilian oversight, intensified until it threatened the entire French state. The unquestioned professional and cultural assumptions that positioned officers on a collision course with the state were products of over a decade of armed struggle. At the end of this path, when they were given the choice of “overthrowing” either their assumptions or the government that commanded them, it was the Fourth Republic that they sent hurtling into the abyss.

Assumptions, Operational Practices, and Doctrine

The Army’s march across the Rubicon had gradual beginnings far beyond the catalyzing trauma of defeat at Dien Bien Phu. With the widespread recognition that Algeria could not be stabilized with conventional military tactics came the corresponding realization that victory there would come from a struggle that was primarily political.[xxxii] Revolutionary Warfare theory demanded that its practitioners understand why they fought and who they were fighting, and in contesting the bodies and psyches of Muslim Algerians, French officers inched towards anti-state activism. Once the civil and military command had institutionalized guerre révolutionnaire’s preference for political and social victory over strictly military successes, the Army’s independence from civil control became inevitable.

Military leaders responded to the extreme international risks that surrounded their efforts in Algeria by instituting sweeping structural changes to the war effort in 1955. In July of that year, the Chief of Staff for French forces in Algeria Henri Lorillot created “Psychological Action bureaus” targeting “the [Algerian] population.”[xxxiii] The Bureaus were designed to balance “firm repression” with “contact with [local Algerians],” a paradoxical and competing set of obligations that would confuse and inhibit their activities throughout the war.[xxxiv]  Indeed, that Lorillot could think that it was possible to convince a population under violent occupation of France’s beneficence reflected the institution-spanning self-denial that afflicted all of Revolutionary Warfares’ main proponents.

In addition to the military’s organizational reforms, 1955 also witnessed the civil government’s first major contribution to the war.  In a rare moment of Fourth Republic Civil-Military cooperation, Governor-General of Algeria Jacques Soustelle channeled a broader spirit of colonial reformism emanating from Paris and argued for the full integration of Algeria into the French Republic.[xxxv] Faced with an enemy unequivocal and unambiguous in his demands for independence, military intellectuals took up Soustelle’s calls and responded to FLN partisans with their own program of political empowerment and racial equality. Against an Africa politically, religiously, and racially divided, the disciples of integration declared: “from Dunkirk to Tamanrasset, 55 million Frenchmen.”[xxxvi] In 1956, Governor Robert Lacoste followed Soustelle’s example and called on the Army to “make the Muslim population understand” that it “[was] not [in Algeria] to make war against them, but to protect them” from the rebels.[xxxvii] Lacoste’s exhortation was only the first step in the process wherein the Army and civil authorities began translating progressive visions for integrated Algeria into practical, policy-driven solutions.

The government’s brief emphasis on Algerian integration revolutionized the way that the Army conceived of its wartime objectives.  In many cases, sweeps and offensive operations were replaced with calls “for total pacification” brought about by Séctions Administratives Spécialisées (SAS); these units embedded in Algerian villages and “[instructed] the population” in “civic, social, and community values.”[xxxviii] After 1956, soldiers were far more than simple warfighters. Instead, they became tools for educating Muslim Algerians and engaging them in the state-building project. The Army was given virtually unquestioned autonomy in the accomplishment of this task, a demonstration of the practical limits of the government’s ability to participate in pacification. SAS and Psychological Action officers were placed at the forefront of this new approach to the war, engaging in a “struggle of human contact.” It was in their attempts to prevail in this “struggle,” however, that their activist proclivities grew and developed.

As a compliment to the classical offensive operations undertaken in all wars, integrationist doctrine provided guiding principles that units on the battlefield used to generate their metrics for success or failure.[xxxix] As its so-called “official ideology,” integration created priorities that permeated the military’s most basic functions.[xl] With these goals driving their efforts, new pacification efforts used a mix of propaganda, indigenous recruitment, population protection, and intelligence operations.[xli] SAS teams, accompanied by indigenous moghazni tasked with protection duties, followed Psychological Action officers into the countryside and developed French administration wherever they went.[xlii] In many sectors, the SAS launched “work projects, [improved] the living conditions of the population,” and “[enabled] the people to defend themselves.”[xliii] Although not an exhaustive list, the aforementioned efforts on the parts of these units demonstrated the frequent attempts made throughout Algeria to convert the generalized calls for pacification coming from above into operations on the local level. The proliferation and varied practical manifestations of these missions were testaments to both the doctrinal novelty of “integration” and its widespread acceptance.

Liberals in Paris and Algiers complimented the Army’s efforts with their own attempts to transform colonial law. One of the centerpieces of the short-lived civil drive to integrate Algeria were the “loi-cadre” reforms of 1957, which were composed of statutes guaranteeing “universal suffrage, one electoral college [for all races], the creations of Governing Councils in each territory, and the Africanization of the civil service.”[xliv] The Fourth Republic, however, could not handle the apparent strain that even watered-down reform efforts imposed on its ruling coalitions. For each of the efforts to pass laws aimed at improving the lives of “Muslim” French citizens, at least one administration collapsed or underwent crippling stress.  Still, for a short time the armed agents of integration could see their efforts supported by corresponding but unsuccessful efforts in Paris to create a legal system in Algeria that was less blatantly racist than it had hitherto been. Prior to loi-cadre, in 1956 reformers in the administration of socialist Prime Minister Guy Mollet applied integrationist principles to the civil service through “exceptional promotion.”[xlv] One of the most effective efforts of its kind, this program recruited, trained and hired large numbers of Muslim Algerians for use as administrators both in Algeria and in the Metropole.[xlvi] Exceptional promotion provided essential guidance to soldiers unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the political and social roles they now found themselves playing on a daily basis. In other words, the evolution of integration within a military context was never an isolated event, and although most Parisian efforts to undo the institutional racism prevalent in Algeria were abject failures, these attempts nonetheless provided sources of inspiration to soldiers more capable of making them a reality.

Faced with the decades-long void left by a chronically overstretched and weak administration, the military’s new missions were symbolic, social, and political. The agents of integration, by virtue of the types of missions they undertook, formed professional and ethical bonds with the indigenous Algerian community that would shape their subsequent roles in the war. The promise that “the Army would never leave” was the often-explicit premise of integrationist plans to rally Muslim Algerians to France.[xlvii] Under the committed but idiosyncratic rule of the Fourth Republic, officers’ decisions to stake their honor on the maintenance of French Algeria were logical given the pronunciations of all of France’s key leaders. So long as it was allowed to dictate policy virtually unhindered, a degree of harmony could exist between the Army and the state. With their new methods, new objectives, and new obligations, however, French officers engaged in pacification were far more sensitive to the perceived weaknesses of the Fourth Republic than they had been when the war began. When they sensed that the commitment of the regime was weakening, soldiers in the professional Army demonstrated the full extent to which their personal honor had become confused with their national obligations by overthrowing, with little hesitation, the government they purported to serve.

The military’s strategy of combining Paris’ weak but well-articulated civil reforms with its own more dramatic shifts in battlefield practice reached the apogee of its influence during the May 1958 crisis. Soldiers and settlers displayed the full extent of their radicalization when they responded to Prime Minister to-be Pierre Pflimlin’s mention of French-FLN “negotiations” with insurrectionary violence.[xlviii] Bolstered by the settler’s seizure of the central government in Algiers, the Army formed governing Committees of Public Safety in collaboration with civilian rioters and eventually threatened Metropolitan France with invasion. At that point, the seizure of Corsica and General Raoul Salan’s demand for the return of Charles de Gaulle were all that was required to strike the Fourth Republic’s deathblow. 

After May 1958, the ascendant architects of the “new French Algeria” paired their battlefield supremacy with an expansive vision of the country fully integrated into France. Military public affairs attachés, taken with the “diffusion techniques” that guerre révolutionnaire championed, recorded and broadcasted the uprising with frames and colors that were as brilliant as they were optimistic.[xlix] The theme of Franco-Muslim “fraternization” was preponderant, and the narrations of the post-coup period repeated ad nauseam that “ten million men, women, elderly, and children” wished “to stay…totally French.”[l] Indeed, the Army-sponsored newscasts following May 1958 were testament to the importance of the “image” in the psycho-social techniques employed by France’s professional soldier class. During the numerous demonstrations following 13 May, paratroopers in Algiers organized multi-racial rallies dedicated to the Nation at the same time that they threatened to invade Metropolitan France. The existence, with no internal reflection, of this obviously contradictory program revealed the full maturity of their political consciousness. To the officers involved in the coup, the Nation was no longer synonymous with the state.

For senior war leaders desperate for a tool to blunt the momentum of the FLN, May 1958 was pivotal. General Salan, chief of French Forces in Algeria during the crisis, seized on the dramatic displays of fraternization that had occurred on May 16 and argued that “the Union [was] fact” because thousands of “Frenchmen, Muslim and Christian, [had] proclaimed it.”[li] General Challe, who shared little of Salan’s proclivity for intrigue, was himself taken by “the entire [Muslim quarter of Algiers]” declaring that they “[were] all equally French.”[lii] That “May ‘58” would be translated into justification for subsequent military interventions into politics should not overshadow its immediate impact. The demonstrations, fraternization, and success of the coup signaled to officers who feared defeat above all that their control of Algerian policy was not only justified, but necessary. Moreover, these events enabled them to see their political imaginary come briefly to life. After they had witnessed the true extent of their power, many officers felt they could not and should not give up their ascendant roles in Algerian affairs.

Aside from the obvious risks that guerre révolutionnaire and the May 1958 uprising posed to France’s democratic order, the “power” of these events still could not erase the basic sociological, economic, and historical realities that formed the foundation of the FLN’s appeal.  Throughout the war, French planners were unable to separate the long-standing grievances of a subjugated population from the fantastic fears of Communist infiltration that they had themselves created. Instead of looking to the Algerians’ hardships, French political action teams placed their hopes in new “mechanisms for the spread of ideas due to [innovations in] science and psychological techniques.”[liii] Though crippling parliamentary barriers to reform did not help them, ideological rigidity blinded advocates of integration to many of the structural causes of Algerian nationalism that would have otherwise been obvious. Many officers insisted throughout the war that, despite all of the signs to the contrary, “there [was] no such thing as Muslim nationalism,” only “Communism that [pretended] to be nationalism.”[liv] The Army’s attitude following 1958 was as detached from reality as it had ever been. Without breaking their self-imposed silence on the colonial issue, failure was inevitable.

Civil Society’s Role in the Politicization and Radicalization of the Army

Soon after the Army began practicing its population-centric strategy in earnest, in 1956 the Fourth Republic entered its two-year death spiral. Too internally divided to articulate a coherent vision for Algeria’s future, Paris ceded the majority of its political and economic responsibilities to generals. While the weakness of the state gave French forces in Algeria operational flexibility, it also ensured that military leaders were given almost no guidance from above. Instead, and in order to fill the void left by the state’s lack of vision, French strategists like Salan seized whatever slogans they could find and put them to work immediately as responses to the FLN’s calls for independence. Because these slogans should have emanated from civil government, however, their formulation and championing by soldiers propelled the Army towards subversion. Left undisturbed, its doctrinal obligation to mobilize the population and its organizational-cultural refusal to suffer further humiliation left the military unable to contemplate the possibility that the interests of France may have been different from its own. The insurrections of May 1958 and April 1961, both staged in the name of the French Nation, were the results of this divergence of interests.

The officer corps’ responsibility for the Army’s drift towards subversion, while significant, was not total. Politicians working within the Fourth Republic both passively enabled its politicization and at times explicitly endorsed it. Expediency and convenience, particularly after the war became unpopular on the Left, drove many fragile coalitions in the Fourth Republic to remove themselves with all haste from the conflict. When these coalitions were actually able to legislate, which was itself a rare occurrence, they often codified their juridical deference to the military into law. Most demonstrative of the state’s evacuation of responsibility for the war was the Special Powers Act of 16 March 1956 passed under the administration of Guy Mollet. It not only devolved police powers to the Army, but also enabled the military-controlled government to engage in “any exceptional measure” with the goal of the “reestablishment of order.”[lv] The gradual spread of “states of exception” like those established by the Special Powers Act confirmed to the officer corps its supremacy in matters concerning the “national will” in Algeria. By the time de Gaulle attempted to curtail their untenable domination, many of these men had turned the defeat of the FLN and the full integration of Algeria into questions of honor and integrity. Independence was simply unthinkable.

Alienation from the state, a trauma-driven drive to win, and a strongly political ideology worked together to produce the insurrectionary force that confronted Pflimlin in 1958 and de Gaulle in 1961. These factors also drove an internal process of reorientation vis-à-vis the Republic, one that positioned the armed forces both superior to and apart from the ineptitude of the “parliamentarians.”  Once they had been given legal sanction to assume the powers of the civil government, officers in Algeria justified their usurpation of authority on moral and practical grounds. Arguing that “the state of peace’ no longer [existed] and political and military activities” were “intimately mixed all the way to the lowest echelons,” they conflated their wartime goals with those of “the Nation.”[lvi] Further, by 1958 the Army’s physical and intellectual separation from the Metropole had become obvious. The only way that soldiers could have justified arguing that they were “the nation’s faithful reflection,” and that their “unquestioned actions should be praised by [everyone],” was if they were totally ignorant of public opinion in the Hexagon.[lvii] Given that hubristic statements like this were well received, that such dangerous and willful ignorance existed amongst officers was near certain.

At the same time that they elevated themselves above the chaos of the Fourth Republic, professional soldiers grew increasingly suspicious of its supposed readiness to betray their sacrifices. General André Zeller verbalized the twinned process of elevation and resentment when he declared that the “Army [could] no longer obey or sacrifice itself for words like ‘duty’ or ‘discipline.”[lviii] In justifying his open subversion, Zeller pointed to the French state’s inability to deal with “the world crisis with which [the military] was now engaged.” [lix] France could only overcome the existential threat of Communist invasion if it recognized the moral and political supremacy of its soldiers. Democratic rule, in contrast, had transformed into an uninteresting “game of presentation” that the military played no part in.[lx] Rather than supporting the civilian institutions that commanded them in Algeria, the French officer corps instead began to look to themselves as the bedrock of stability from which a new, stabilized France would emerge.

By the time the French state reconstituted itself as the more durable, stable Fifth Republic, the Army’s slide into militancy had become irreversible. Many officers, convinced of the righteousness of their cause and emboldened by their role in the 1958 coup, were unable to fathom the possibility of disengagement from Algeria. Subsequently, President de Gaulle’s calls for Algerian self-determination, negotiations with the FLN, and his acceptance of an Algerian Republic “one day” were provocations they could not accept. Where they had once looked to the state in the vain hope that it would provide them with comprehensive Algerian platform,[lxi] after they had been forced to develop their own political vision they declared simply that “[they could not] abandon the Muslims that [were] loyal to [France.]”[lxii] After years of frustration, many soldiers no longer cared where the justifications for the war came from. Guerre révolutionnaire had forced them to understand both why they fought and what the global consequences were if they failed. Victory, whatever it took, was the only outcome that they would accept short of rebellion.

After the coup had been broken, the trials of France’s rebellious officer granted these men the forum for civil-military dialogue they had so painfully lacked just months prior. When he was called upon to account for his decision to join General Challe and the Putschists, Colonel Hélie Denoix de Saint Marc contrasted the “indifference and incomprehension” of the Metropole with the Muslims “comrades” who had “joined [him] in combat, sharing [his] pain, [his] suffering.”[lxiii] He had rebelled because he could not abandon the “true” France, championed by the Muslims “who had fallen by his side,” and who would join the long list of indigenous fighters betrayed by France’s carless administration if he did not act.[lxiv] The Army’s program in 1955, which had been endorsed by the Fourth Republic, was incompatible with the geopolitical vision of the Fifth. The inevitable result was tension, first in the published protestations of the French officer corps and later in the 1961 coup.


To fight the Revolutionary War to save Algeria, the French Army became revolutionary. From one racially-progressive, politically visionary step to another, it inched towards a point of no return that it reached in triumph during the May 1958 crisis. When they were filtered through its institutional process of doctrinal formation, its trauma-induced fixation on victory, and the leverage that the Fourth Republic had provided it during the formative early years of the Algerian War, integration and guerre révolutionnaire became the catalysts for the Army’s “awakening.” Faced with a war that had no limits, surrounded by an enemy with no country, and abandoned by a nation that did not understand them, influential segments of the officer corps took on the  project of national revival themselves. In so doing, and because they thought that they represented the sole recourse through which the national interest could be saved, their already-existing anti-Republican sentiments grew into insurrectionary and eventually terroristic violence. In the pursuit of what their self-referential worldview informed them to be their only path to victory, these men insured their total defeat. By the time the Evian Accords were agreed upon in March, 1962, the social and political values that guerre révolutionnaire thinkers had used to articulate their integrated, globe-spanning vision of a France restored had collapsed around them.


Primary Sources


Etablissement de Communication et de Production Audiovisuelle de la Défense (ECPAD), Dossier No. 3 (de Gaulle et l’Algérie), Fort Ivry, Ivry-sur-Seine

Section de documentation militaire de l’Union française, Fontainebleu, Paris

Service historique de l’Armée de terre (SHAT) 1H, Vincennes, Paris.


L’Echo d’Alger

Le Figaro


Revue de Défense nationale

Revue Militaire d’Information

Journal Officiel de l’Algérie

Visual or Digital Primary Sources

“Le discours du général de Gaulle à Alger, le 4 juin 1958,” ECPAD, SCA 149. Date Accessed: 10 May, 2016.

Le putsch des généraux avril 1961 [Video File]. (1961, May 3). Retrieved from Date Accessed: 10 May, 2016.

de Saint Marc, Hélie Denoix. "Déclaration d’Hélie Denoix de Saint Marc devant le haut tribunal militaire, le 5 juin 1961,” Date Accessed: 2 May, 2016.

Printed Primary Sources

Aussaresses, Paul. The Battle of the Casbah: Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism in Algeria, 1955-1957, trans. Robert Miller. New York: Enigma, 2002.

Brown, Bernard E. “The Army and Politics in France,” The Journal of Politics 23, No. 2 (May, 1961).

Challe, Maurice. Notre Révolte. Paris: Presses de la Cité, 1968.

de Gaulle, Charles. Memoirs of Hope: Renewal and Endeavor, trans. Terence Kilmartin. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971.

Dufresnoy, Jacques, ed. Des Officiers Parlent. Paris : R. Julliard, 1961.

Galula, David. Pacification in Algeria. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 1963.

Secondary Sources

Ambler, John S. The French Army in Politics, 1954-1962. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1966.

Beers, Wynne M. “French Army Strategy and Strategic Culture during the Algerian War, 1954-1958,” Master’s Dissertation, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, 2011.

Eveno and Planchais, Patrick and Jean. La Guerre d’Algérie. Paris: La Découverte, 1989.

Horne, Alistair. The French Army in Politics: 1870-1970. New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1984.

Hull, Isabel V. Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005.

Kier, Elizabeth. Imagining War: French and British Military Doctrine between the Wars. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.

McDougall, James. Review of “No Fixed Values,” by Christopher Cradock and M.L.R. Smith.

Menard, Orville Duane. The Army and the Fifth Republic: The Role of the Army in French Politics. PhD Dissertation, University of Nebraska, 1964.

Pahlavi, Pierre Cyril. La guerre révolutionnaire de l’armée en Algérie, 1954-1961. Paris: L’Harmattan, 2004.

Paret, Peter. French Revolutionary Warfare from Indochina to Algeria. New York: Praegar, 1964.

Shepard, Todd. The Invention of Decolonization: The Algerian War and the Remaking of France. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006.

Stovall, Tyler. Transnational France: The Modern History of a Universal Nation. New York: Basic Books, 2015.

Trinquier, Roger. La guerre moderne. Paris: La Table Ronde, 1961.

Zervoudakis, Alexander. “A case of successful pacification: The 584th Battalion du Train at Bordj de l’Agha (1956-57) Journal of Strategic Studies 25, No. 2 (June 2010), 54-64.

End Notes

[i] Maurice Challe, “La proclamation du général Challe,” L’Echo d’Alger, April 22, 1961, trans. Grau, 1.

[ii] Le putsch des généraux avril 1961 [Video File]. (1961, May 3). Retrieved from, accessed April 25, 2016.

[iii] Pierre Pflimlin was the candidate for Prime Minister whose investiture crisis helped to spark the May 1958 uprising.

[iv]See Le putsch des généraux avril 1961. André Zeller “chose” shortly thereafter to join Challe in prison, leaving only Salan and Jouhaud to lead the OAS.

[v] Charles de Gaulle, Memoirs of Hope: Renewal and Endeavor, trans. Terence Kilmartin (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971), 107.

[vi] Tyler Stovall, Transnational France: The Modern History of a Universal Nation (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 406.

[vii] “La salle multi-écrans, Historial Charles de Gaulle,” Musée des Invalides. Paris.

[viii] Orville Duane Menard, The Army and the Fifth Republic: The Role of the Army in French Politics. PhD Dissertation, University of Nebraska, 1964, 226.

[ix] Andrew M. Pettigrew, “On Studying Organizational Cultures,” Administrative Science Quarterly 24, No. 4 (Dec, 1979), 574.

[x] Translated and referred to in this paper interchangeably as "Revolutionary Warfare theory.”

[xi] J. Hogard, “Guerre Révolutionnaire ou Révolution dans l’Art de Guerre,” Revue de Défense Nationale (Jan 1956), 1503.

[xii] Isabel V. Hull, Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005), 96. See also Raoul Salan, Directive Générale “Poursuite de la lutte dans le cadre de la Guerre Révolutionnaire," 2 June 1958, SHAT 2409/1, 1-4.

[xiii] J. Hogard, “Guerre Révolutionnaire ou Révolution dans l’Art de Guerre,” 1506.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] L.-M. Chassin, “Vers un encerclement de l’occident ?” Revue de Défense Nationale (May 1956),  531.

[xvi] Chassin, “Vers un encerclement de l’occident ?” 531.

[xvii] Colonel N., Des Officiers Parlent, ed., Charles Dufresnoy (Paris : R. Julliard, 1961), 26.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] René Vallet, “Y a-t-il un ‘axe’ le Caire-Moscou-Pékin ?” Revue de Défense Nationale (Oct, 1958), 1534-5.

[xx]J. Hogard, “L’Armée Française devant la Guerre Révolutionnaire,” Revue de Défense Nationale (Jan, 1957), 86.

[xxi] J. Hogard, “Cette guerre de notre temps,” Revue de Défense Nationale 27 (Aug-Sep 1958), 1311.

[xxii] J. Hogard, “Cette guerre de notre temps,” 1312.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Pierre Mendes-France, "Ce n’est pas fini…" Le Figaro, September 28, 1956, trans. Grau, 6.

[xxv] J. Hogard, “Cette guerre de notre temps,” 1311.

[xxvi] Charles Lacheroy, “Une arme du Viet-Minh: Hiérarchies parallèles,” SDMUF, SHAT GR 12T 65, 8.

[xxvii] See: Paul Aussaresses, The Battle of the Casbah: Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism in Algeria, 1955-1957, trans. Robert Miller (New York: Enigma, 2002).

[xxviii] A notable set of counter-examples to this would be the Parisian Police’s brutality directed towards Muslim Algerians throughout the war and against Communists in February, 1962: See Jim House and Neil McMaster, Paris 1961: Algerians, State Terror, and Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[xxix] For Army-sponsered drives to increase diffusion of military journals, see Colonel Metz, “Diffusion des Documents d’Information,” 17 June, 1956, SHAT 1H 1117/1, 2.

[xxx] Géneral Oly, Bourdeau d’Envoi No. 3221, "Notes méritées par le Capitane Lepetit,” 2 October, 1958. SHAT 2457/2, 1-2.

[xxxi] Elizabeth Kier, Imagining War: French and British Military Doctrine between the Wars (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 4.

[xxxii] See, for example, Raoul Salan, "Directive Generale au sujet de l’activité des Forces du Maintien de l’Ordre en 10e Région Militaire," 1 November, 1958, SHAT 1H 2539/1, 2.

[xxxiii] General Henri Lorillot, "Directive pour l’action psychologique sur le territoire de la 10e région militaire,” 7 July, 1955, SHAT 1H 2403.

[xxxiv] Lorillot, "Directive pour l’action psychologique."

[xxxv] Jacques Soustelle, “Lettre d'un intellectuel à quelques autres à propos de l'Algérie," Combat, November 26-7, 1955, trans. Grau, 1.

[xxxvi] Muller et al. Essais sur l’Integration, May, 1958, SHAT 1H 1117/2, 1.

[xxxvii] Robert Lacoste, “LE ROLE DE L’ARMÉE DANS L’ACTION PSYCHOLOGIQUE,” Revue Militaire d’Information (Jul, 1956), 33.

[xxxviii] Lieutenant B, Des Officiers Parlent, 1-2.

[xxxix] Wynne M. Beers, “French Army Strategy and Strategic Culture during the Algerian War, 1954-1958,” Master’s Dissertation, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, 2011, 7.

[xl] Ambler, The French Army in Politics, 170.

[xli] See, for example, General Maurice Challe, “Directive No. 1 aux Forces Terrestres, Aériennes, et Maritimes," 22 December, 1958, SHAT 1H 1923/1, 1-6.

[xlii] Alexander Zervoudakis, “A case of successful pacification: The 584th Battalion du Train at Bordj de l’Agha (1956-57) Journal of Strategic Studies 25, No. 2 (June 2010), 58.

[xliii] Peter Paret, French Revolutionary Warfare from Indochina to Algeria (New York: Praegar, 1964), 85.

[xliv] X, “UNION FRANҪAISE,” Revue Militaire d’Information (Jul, 1956), 31.

[xlv] Todd Shepard, The Invention of Decolonization (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006), 50.

[xlvi] Todd Shepard, The Invention of Decolonization (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006), 50.

[xlvii] General Raoul Salan, Note pour les Chefs de Corps de Services "Declaration d’intention du Gouvernement concernant l’Algérie," 26 January, 1957, SHAT 1H 1117/1, Annexe, 1.

[xlviii] "M. Pflimlin donnera aujourd’hui une réponse sans doute positive," L’Echo d’Alger (10 May, 1958), 1.

[xlix] “Le discours du général de Gaulle à Alger, le 4 juin 1958,” ECPAD, SCA 149.

[l] Ibid.

[li] Raoul Salan, “RALLIEZ-VOUS,” (May 20, 1958)  L’Echo d’Alger, 4.

[lii] Maurice Challe, Notre Révolte (Paris: Presses de la Cité, 1968), 36.

[liii] J. Hogard, “Cette guerre de notre temps,” Revue de Défense Nationale 27 (Aug-Sep 1958), 1306.

[liv] Colonel N., Des Officiers Parlent, 25.

[lv] René Coty, Journal Officiel de l’Algérie 22, March 18, 1956, SHAT 1H 1370/5, 496.

[lvi] J. Hogard, “L’Armée Française devant la Guerre Révolutionnaire,” 80.

[lvii] Roger Trinquier, La guerre moderne, (Paris: La Table Ronde, 1961), 11.

[lviii] André Zeller, “Armée et Politique,” Revue de Défense Nationale (Avr 1957), 514.

[lix] Zeller, “Armée et Politique,” 514, 502.

[lx] Ibid., 500.

[lxi] Colonel D., Des Officiers Parlent, 23.

[lxii] Anon, Des Officiers Parlent, 42.

[lxiii] Déclaration d’Hélie Denoix de Saint Marc devant le haut tribunal militaire, le 5 juin 1961,

[lxiv] Déclaration d’Hélie Denoix.


About the Author(s)

Nathan Grau is a graduate student at the London School of Economics. His other work focuses on the use of indigenous combat units by French forces during the Age of Decolonization. He has completed degrees at New York University and Columbia University.