As of the early 1960s, France—like much of northern and western Europe—had been a democratic republic for nearly a century, save for the 1940-45 German occupation. However, the emergence of the pro-Nazi Vichy government and the ease with which German occupiers found willing collaborators during that period raised concerns over the commitment to democracy in some sectors of French society. The ultimate test came in April of 1961 when, after seven years of a bloody counter-insurgency war in Algeria against nationalists fighting for independence from France, French President Charles de Gaulle announced that his government would begin negotiations to end 130 years of French colonial rule. With nearly one million French colonists living in the country, some whose families had been there for generations, the prospects of no longer enjoying the benefits of white minority rule created a backlash from the French right, who were well-represented in the French armed forces.
On Friday night, April 21, four generals led a regiment to take over government offices in Algiers, the Algerian capital. They arrested a number of loyalist generals who led the colonial administration and announced their control of legal and civil government in the colony as well as all radio stations and newspapers. It soon became clear that neither the French government in Paris nor the putschists in Algiers were willing to compromise.
It also became apparent that this was in fact an attempt to forcibly seize power not just in Algeria, but in France itself. Indeed, the putschists had developed plans, after consolidating control in Algiers and other major Algerian coastal cities where the vast majority of the French population was located, to organize a seizure of Paris. Roughly a half million French soldiers, constituting a majority of the country’s armed forces, were stationed in Algeria at that point in time.
French President Charles de Gaulle immediately gave a nationwide address calling for popular resistance to the coup attempt. Following emergency meetings over the weekend between French political parties and trade unions, a one-hour general strike and public protests took place that Monday, April 24, 1961, to indicate a willingness to resist any efforts to threaten civilian rule in France itself. Noting a likely air invasion of rebel soldiers from Algeria, Prime Minister Michel Debré called on citizens to be ready to rush to the airfields to persuade the incoming soldiers to remain loyal to civilian authorities. Hundreds of people pre-emptively went to the airfields to prepare vehicles to physically block the runways. In Algeria, French loyalists began making copies of de Gaulle’s speech calling for resistance, circulating them among French soldiers and French civilians. Loyalist military pilots in Algeria flew over half of the fighter planes and transporters back to France while mysterious claims of sudden mechanical failures grounded others.
While top French officers appeared to remain neutral, the majority of ordinary soldiers—who were largely conscripts—remained in their barracks in defiance of putschists’ orders to mobilize. Mid-level officers deliberately misplaced orders and documents from the putschists in support of the rebellion. Still others slowed up military communications and transportation. Within certain regiments, soldiers set up self-governing committees outside of the military command structure. Some civil servants went on strike while others hid critical documents and files.
While the French government engaged in a number of contingency plans to resist the spread of the coup to the French mainland by military means, it soon became apparent that the civil resistance actions were preventing coup-plotters from achieving their objectives. In Algeria, the police force switched sides and pledged support for the civilian government. Though de Gaulle called on loyalist troops to attack the rebels, they did not wish to participate in initiating a civil war among the French. Also recognizing their successes using nonviolent resistance, the loyalist troops did not engage in any sort of violence against the putschists. By the evening of April 25, 1961, the coup leaders abandoned their posts and fled.
Algeria received its independence the following year and France has remained one of the world’s leading democracies. One of the more politically polarized of European societies, a strong trade union movement and a tradition of youth-led resistance has resulted in periodic demonstrations involving millions of people nationwide and an unsuccessful proto-revolutionary uprising in May of 1968. A strong nationalist and populist far-right party has increased its following in recent years. Yet the defense of democratic institutions remains strong within left, centrist, and moderate conservative elements, collectively representing a sizeable majority of French society. At the same time, the military has remained solidly under elected civilian government control.