Algiers putsch of 1961
From left to right: French Generals André Zeller, Edmond Jouhaud, Raoul Salan and Maurice Challe during the coup (Gouvernement General building, Algiers, April 23, 1961).
|Commanders and leaders|
| President Charles de Gaulle
| Maurice Challe
Hélie Denoix de Saint Marc
|Government-loyal armed force||Counter force armed force|
|Casualties and losses|
|1 soldier killed|
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 a military junta. Organised in French Algeria by retired French army generals Maurice Challe (former commander-in-chief in French Algeria), Edmond Jouhaud (former Inspector General of the French Air Force), André Zeller (former Chief of staff of the French Ground Army) and Raoul Salan (former commander-in-chief in French Algeria), it took place from the afternoon of 21 April to 26 April 1961 in the midst of the Algerian War (1954–62).
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). Gen. Raoul Salan stated 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 handful of retired generals / generals in retreat).
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 Col. 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". The following day, President Charles de Gaulle made a famous speech on television, dressed with his 1940s general's uniform (he was 70 years old and long retired from the army) ordering the French people and army to help him.
The majority of the French people had voted in favor of Algerian self-determination during the disputed referendum of 8 January 1961 organised in metropolitan France. The wording of the referendum was "Do you approve the Bill submitted to the French people by the President of the Republic concerning the self-determination of the Algerian population and the organisation of the public power in Algeria prior to self-determination".
French citizens living abroad or serving abroad in the military were allowed to vote, as were all adult Algerians, regardless of ancestry, in a single electoral college. Speaking for the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (the political arm of the FLN), Ferhat Abbas called for a boycott of the referendum, as did 16 retired French generals and factions among the pied noir (French settler) community opposed to independence. Self-determination was approved by 75% of voters overall and 69.5% in Algeria. The government reported voter turnout of 92.2%. Other sources claim that four out of ten of the individuals in France and Algeria entitled to vote abstained.
Following the outcome of the referendum, Michel Debré's government started secret negotiations with the GPRA. On 25 January 1961 Col. 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 created in 1848 after the 1830 conquest become independent.
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On 22 April 1961 retired generals Maurice Challe, André Zeller and Raoul Salan, helped by colonels Antoine Argoud, Jean Gardes and civilians Joseph Ortiz and Jean-Jacques Susini (who would form the OAS terrorist group), took control of Algiers. Gen. 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 Metropolitan France and to reconstitute a constitutional and republican order seriously compromised by a government whose illegality is blatant in the eyes of the nation.
During the night the 1st Foreign Parachute Regiment (1e REP), composed of 1000 men and headed by Hélie de Saint Marc, took control of all of Algiers' strategic points in three hours. The units directly involved in the putsch were the 1st and 2nd REP, the 1er REC and the 14th and 18th Regiments of Chasseurs Parachutistes. Together they comprised the elite units of the airborne divisions of the French Army. Initially there were pledges of support from other regiments (the 27th Dragoons, the 94th Infantry, the 7th Algerian Tirailleurs and several Marine infantry units), but these seem to have reflected the views of senior officers only and there was no active participation.
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 of African and Malagasy Affairs and closest collaborator, in charge of covert operations.
Algiers' population was awakened on 22 April at 7:00 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, Jean Morin, arrested as well as the National Minister of Public Transport, Robert Buron, who was visiting, and several civil and military authorities. Several regiments put themselves under the command of the insurrectionary generals.
Gen. Jacques Faure, six other officers and several civilians were simultaneously arrested in Paris. At 5:00 pm, during the ministers' council, Charles de Gaulle declared: "Gentlemen, what is serious about this affair is that it isn't serious". He then proclaimed a state of emergency in Algeria, while left-wing parties, communist trade union CGT and the socialist supporter NGO 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, Gen. Salan arrived in Algeria from Spain and refused to arm civilian activists. At 8:00 pm President de Gaulle appeared in his 1940s vintage military uniform on television, calling on French military personnel and civilians, in metropolitan France 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 fanatical. This group and this quartet possess an expedient and limited knowledge of things. But they only see and understand the Nation and the world distorted by their delirium. Their enterprise leads directly towards a national disaster ... I forbid any Frenchman, and first of all any soldier, to execute a single one of their orders ... In the face of the misfortune which hangs over the country and the threat to 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 the need arises, the measures which seem to me demanded by circumstances ... Frenchwomen, Frenchmen! Help me!
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 and in some cases jailed their officers. The putsch met with widespread opposition, largely in the form of civil resistance, including a one-hour general strike called by the trade unions the day after de Gaulle's broadcast. Within the army itself much depended on the position taken by individual senior officers. The 13th Light Division of Infantry, responsible for the strategic Zone Sud Oranais and including Foreign Legion units, followed the lead of its commander, Gen. Philippe Ginestet, in remaining loyal to the government in Paris. Ginestet was subsequently assassinated by the OAS in retaliation.
On Tuesday 25 April government authorities in Paris ordered the explosion of the atomic bomb Gerboise Verte (lit. "green jerboa") in the Sahara as part of a scheduled testing program. Gerboise Verte exploded at 6:05 am. While the test and test site were already prepped as part of the French national nuclear program, the test timeline appears to have been accelerated to ensure that the security of the device was not compromised.
The few military units which had followed the generals progressively surrendered. Gen. Challe gave himself up to the authorities on 26 April, and was immediately transferred to metropolitan France. The putsch had been successfully quashed, but Article 16 granting full and extraordinary powers 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.
The only known fatality was French Army Sgt. Pierre Brillant, who was killed by the putschists while defending the radio transmitter at Ouled Fayet, Algiers. Brillant was aiming at 1st REP 3rd Company Capt. Estoup when he was shot by a legionnaire.
Trials and amnesty
A military court condemned Challe and André Zeller to 15 years in 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 (later commuted to life sentence), as was Jouhaud. Salan and others later founded the OAS, a terrorist paramilitary organization that attempted to stop the ongoing process of the April 1962 Independence Evian Agreements for the Algerian territories of France. A July 1968 act granted amnesty; the November 24, 1982 law reintegrated the surviving generals into the army. Raoul Salan, Edmond Jouhaud and six other generals benefitted from this law.
Controversy around CIA and BND allegations
There had been publications in France, first in Il Paese and then in Le Monde and L'Express, stating that individuals within the CIA supported the coup. The rumor allegedly spread by word of mouth, originating from minor officials in the Elysée Palace itself. The officials apparently told reporters, "to understand that the general's plot was backed by strongly anti-communist elements in the United States Government and military services." In May 1961, L'Express published an article stating:
Both in Paris and in Washington the facts are now known, though they will never be publicly admitted. In private, the highest French personalities make no secret of it. What they say is this: "The CIA played a direct part in the Algiers coup, and certainly weighed heavily on the decision taken by ex-general Challe to start his putsch."
 Only two days before the Algiers putsch, the CIA had indeed staged a failed coup in Cuba against its leader Fidel Castro, known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion. In what some[who?] allege a cover up, U.S. President John F. Kennedy contacted de Gaulle to pledge his support, including military assistance, if needed. President de Gaulle declined Kennedy's offer.
There were other claims of foreign support: French journalist Patrick Pesnot contended that the French generals also had the support of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (West German Federal Intelligence Service) leader Reinhard Gehlen. However, Gen. Challe himself always contended that he had never been in contact with any foreign countries in this affair.
Notes and references
- French National Audiovisual Institute INA, Les Actualités Françaises - 03/05/1961
- Debré's official speech in the 20h news report, ORTF public television channel, 22 April 1961
- French National Audiovisual Institute INA, JT 20H - 23/04/1961
- Nohlen, D & Stöver, P (2010) Elections in Europe: A data handbook, p674 ISBN 978-3-8329-5609-7
- Nohlen & Stöver, p685
- Horne, Alistair. A Savage War of Peace. pp. 304 & 305. ISBN 0-670-61964-7.
- Dubois, Ghislain (1996). Argoud, de Gaulle: le duel (in French). Editions Dricot. p. 97. ISBN 9782870951835. Retrieved 22 April 2013.
- 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.
- De Gaulle: Ce qui est grave dans cette affaire, messieurs, c’est qu’elle n’est pas sérieuse.
- The Human Right League calls for a Segolene Royal votation, Nouvelobs.com, retrieved April 29, 2007
- 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 !
- Adam Roberts, ‘Civil Resistance to Military Coups’, Journal of Peace Research, Oslo, vol. 12, no. 1, 1975, pp. 19-36.
- pages 46-47 Militaria Magazine 360 July 2015
- Les Premiers Essais Francais au Sahara :1960-1966 (in French)
- "France's Nuclear Weapons - Origin of the Force de Frappe". Retrieved 1 May 2017.
- Langewiesche, William. "The Dark Romance and Grim Reality of Life in the French Foreign Legion". Retrieved 1 May 2017.
- Alistair Horne, The French Army and Politics, 1984, p. 82, ISBN 0-911745-15-7, ISBN 978-0-911745-15-3.
- Dubois, Ghislain (1995). Argoud, de Gaulle: le duel. Éd. Dricot, p.107 (in French)
- Dulles, Allen (1965). The Craft of Intelligence. New York: New American Library. p. 175. ISBN 9780813302850.
- Tully, Andrew (1962). CIA: The Inside Story. New York: Morrow. p. 45. ISBN 978-0688013202.
- Noyes, Crosby. "[unknown]". Washington Star – via CIA: The Inside Story.
- Werth, Alexander (1961). The CIA in Algeria. New York: The Nation. pp. 433–5.
- Rendez-vous with X: Algiers Putsch & the CIA, Patrick Pesnot, Radio show, broadcast on French public radio France Inter, April 14, 2001
- Pierre Abramovici, Le Putsch des Généraux, éd. Fayard, 2011
- Jacques Fauvet and Jean Planchais, La Fronde des Généraux, Arthaud, Paris, 1961
- Porch, Douglas. The French Foreign Legion. New York: Harper Collins, 1991. ISBN 978-0-06-092308-2
- Roberts, Adam, ‘Civil Resistance to Military Coups’, Journal of Peace Research, Oslo, vol. 12, no. 1, 1975, pp. 19–36.
- Roberts, Adam, ‘La défaite du putsch de 1961: un exemple de résistance civile’, Espoir, Institut Charles de Gaulle, Paris, no. 15, June 1976, pp. 47–54.
- General Maurice Challe, protégé of CIA director Allen Dulles, plot against De Gaulle (PDF)
- La réhabilitation des généraux putschistes, en 1982, Human Rights League (in French)
- Article in Le Monde, 2001 (in French)
- Article by Pierre Abramovici (in French)