THE pronunciamento is not in the French tradition. Neither General Bonaparte nor Marshal Pétain nor, in 1944, General de Gaulle relied on the Army when he seized power. On occasions when military chiefs came into conflict with the Government they always ended by obeying it. The revolt of the generals and colonels in Algeria in May 1958 was therefore an entirely new phenomenon. Will it remain an exception? Or is it true that the Army has become master of the destinies of France? Is it going to rule the State from now on, directly or through its agents? To find an answer to this question--an answer that holds the key to the whole future of France--it is essential to understand why and how the Army came to intervene as it did in politics.


After the French Army had gained a sense of unity in the victorious fighting of 1944-45 it found itself almost at once engaged in Indochina. There it had its initial traumatic experience. While most of the French people were thinking only of how to forget the miseries of the Occupation, the Army found itself locked in a difficult war of a new sort. During seven years, thousands of miles from home, it developed a special mentality and doctrine. It faced a fanatical enemy, but it did not have the faith and support of its own people. It felt that it was forgotten and misunderstood; and when at last it had to evacuate Indochina, it believed it had been betrayed.

By a tendency natural enough in men who have faced death, the Army little by little came to feel that it, and it alone, had lived real history. While the West was enjoying the pleasures and comforts of peace, they in the front line, a mere handful of men, had been taking the full shock of Communist aggression. Probably the Roman legions who fought on the limes while Rome gave itself over to pleasure felt the same compulsion to reform the Empire.

An original reason for the divorce of the Army from the State was the conviction that the war was permanent. Officers in Indochina felt that the Second World War had been transformed into a Third World War and that while the West failed to understand this they were living it in all reality. It was not an open war; it was a many-sided operation which called for the fullest utilization of practical and psychological resources and only occasionally resorted to arms. The balance of terror which paralyzed the great world powers left the field open for "revolutionary wars" which the Soviet Union launched by remote control at chosen weak points. Some colonels went so far as to assert that limited wars were the only type of military conflict which remained possible aside from a war of instantaneous atomic annihilation.

When the Algerian insurrection broke out in 1954, it could be interpreted easily enough in accordance with this strategic theory. Indeed, it offered an excuse for not dwelling on the specific causes of this insurrection, and in particular on French responsibilities for it. Further, it seemed legitimate to demand Western solidarity here, too, in the name of defense against Communism. After Asia, Africa. Had not Lenin predicted that the Bolshevik Revolution would reach Europe by a gigantic flanking movement? And after Africa it would be South America's turn.[i]

We need not discuss this thesis, but merely note that the Army, left to its own devices, ended by defining a strategy which necessarily implied a policy as well. Normally it is the State which designates the enemy and sets forth the objectives in war. In this instance, basing itself on its experience in Indochina, the Army decided that it was not engaged against a specific enemy but, in the common interest of the West, against international Communism. This conviction carried the germ of the revolt. What was involved was a tactical episode in a world war; any retreat, any armistice, strengthened the enemy-the enemy which it was the Army's mission to conquer.

Thus the Army took on the shape of an autonomous power, not in order to support a political party or the aspirations of a dictator, but on the contrary in order that it could remain faithful to its mission to carry out to the very end the orders which it had received, to save the nation from itself, to protect the West even if it did not know its peril. In this perspective, the idea of abandoning Algeria was as unthinkable as it would be to abandon a strong point in the middle of a battle.


In the course of its contact with the Communist enemy the Army had learnt not only the necessity of waging war to the bitter end but also how to wage it. A regular army had been beaten by a semi-clandestine army of partisans; and we know how carefully, how stubbornly, every army in the world draws the lessons of lost wars. The war in Indochina taught that the most modern army is not worth anything if it is not backed up by political action. According to Mao Tse-tung, the revolutionary army is only one fraction of the forces mobilized; it rests on a fanatically ideological mass and is entirely enveloped by agitators. To fight it you must place yourself on its own ground. This demands first that against the revolutionary faith you must be able to oppose a contrary faith of a comparable dynamism; second, that alongside traditional military procedures you must employ modern techniques of mobilizing the masses and manipulating opinion (dual authorities, control by cells, obsessive propaganda, brain washing, etc.).

Their humiliating experiences in defeat or in the Viet Minh "reeducation camps" confirmed many French officers in the correctness of the theories of Lenin and Mao Tse-tung. As a result, some captains and majors on their return from Indochina set up a new service in the general staff which they called "psychological action." It remained only to put into effect against the Algerian insurgents the methods which they had learnt from the Communists in Indochina. One celebrated parachutist colonel summed up the Army's task in Algeria as follows: "What we have to do is organize the population from top to bottom. You may call me a Fascist, but we have to make the population docile and everyone's actions must be controlled."[ii]

This phenomenon deserves to be studied. Already after the First World War, in conditions not unlike those which followed the Second, Fascist and Nazi theoreticians had decided that in order to fight Communism effectively one had to adopt its own methods; this led to the suppression of democracy. The officers of "psychological action" have followed something of the same road, though in a less radical and systematic way. They too began by adopting a sort of Leninism, limited to method--"I am a Communist without doctrine," said Colonel Trinquier. Thence they were led to try to develop a political doctrine that could inspire propaganda and mobilize energies. Unlike the Fascists, however, they have not found this doctrine--or rather they have found several doctrines; furthermore, unlike Italy or Germany in the 1920s, the French situation did not lend itself to being crystallized in a totalitarian mold. This is the reason that, after having fought the democratic forces in May 1958 and having been obliged to surrender, these officers were not able to find a substitute and had to appeal to a personality who could reassure public opinion.

We note in passing that in the name of efficiency the battle against Communism took over little by little the enemy's methods. The first consequence was conduct contrary to human dignity and there followed a progressive denial of the ideals for which the battle was being fought. The second consequence was really to create the peril which was being denounced. To liken the Front of National Liberation to Communism was an aberration, but the result was that the F.L.N. was thrown back on the Eastern bloc and Ferhat Abbas finally went to Moscow and Peking looking for help. Thus both in method and in strategy the activist section of the French Army entered into a sort of dialectical collaboration with the Communist enemy. All of which, of course, is only a specific example of a problem that the democracies have had so much difficulty in facing up to for the past 30 years--how to respond to totalitarian methods without adopting them, and how to adopt them without becoming contaminated by their spirit. The answer of the military activists is regrettable, but we must admit that the problem is difficult.

This difficulty became manifest at once. Totalitarian policy is stable; democratic policy is changeable and therefore offers an adversary opportunities for manœuvre. Changes in the governing majority, the fall of governments, successive definitions of different objectives--these phenomena army leaders found incompatible with their assigned task.

Then democracy was put to the test on the score of ideological consistency. Revolutionary movements like Communism and nationalism enjoy a unified vision; they synthesize interests, sentiments, ideas. Democracy does not fight for a single idea but for the right of people to have ideas. Against the nationalist slogan "independence," the Army, on its own authority, set the slogan "integration," a policy which it deduced from the necessities of its form of combat and which it forced on the Government; and when General de Gaulle proclaimed "self-determination," the army chiefs protested because they had to have a formula which symbolized a unified will and which could be described in simple terms. "We won't have our men killed," they said, "in order that the Algerians may be given the right to vote F.L.N."

Their "war of ideas" required a single idea, fixed and clear. From this position the Army arrived somewhat experimentally at political action. Its chiefs sensed that the old principles of patriotism and discipline were not enough to set up against "subversive war;" and in order to fulfill their mission they demanded that the State define a policy and hold to it. As the State was weak and divided, the Army naturally substituted itself for the State; in its ten years of continuous combat it had worked out a coherent conception of permanent interests and of the objectives of guerrilla war.


The State itself prepared the Army to make this substitution. In fact, as the Algerian rebellion became worse, the Government continuously extended its administrative and police powers. The decisive step was taken in January 1957 when the Resident General in Algeria, Robert Lacoste, a Socialist, gave over full power in Algeria to General Massu. This delegation of power, an act of enormous importance, was carried through simply by prefectorial decree; almost secretly the civil authority transferred the ungrateful task of maintaining order to the shoulders of the military. The "battle of Algiers" followed. Relying on his parachutists, General Massu succeeded in strangling terrorism, at the cost, however, of imprisoning, torturing or irregularly executing thousands of persons. It was a success for the Army, but it was won by doing serious wrong to the rights of man. The hypocritical State refused to assume any responsibility.

At the beginning of 1958 more than half the French Army, in all about 600,000 men, were stationed in Algeria. Besides the combatants, who formed a small minority, the Army included police units (parachutists and quasi-secret military police called D.O.P.), a considerable propaganda outfit (psychological action, newspapers, radio) and a full-scale politico-administrative organization (S.A.S. and S.A.U.) which took in hand both the urban and the rural population. The Army built roads, regrouped the evacués, distributed food; military men became mayors, agricultural advisers, teachers, political propagandists. When the Europeans rose on May 13 in fear that they were to be made the victims of a negotiation with the F.L.N., the Army limited the revolt, moderated it and oriented it toward "integration" and Franco-Moslem "fraternization." It was at this moment that the Army took a position which was thenceforth to weigh so heavily on French policy. Strictly speaking, it did not revolt; it placed itself between the two sides. It did not declare for one or against the other; on the contrary, it presented itself as arbitrator between the opposed factions. Instead of letting civil war loose, it pretended that it alone had prevented it; it formed the link between the Europeans and the Moslems, between Algeria and France. In this way the Army did not assert itself against the State. It asserted itself as though it were the State, or at least the provisional replacement of it in a time of crisis.

This non-violent tactic, strange for an Army, was successful because the civil power had already resigned and shown itself to be only a powerless and divided faction. The story of these days in May 1958 shows that the military leaders proceeded only to the extent that they felt certain of being followed by the great majority of French opinion and in this way found democratic support for the legitimacy of their action. Also, they never sought to set up a military government and hastened to rally to the régime of General de Gaulle. One therefore cannot speak of a putsch or of a pronunciamento. The fact remains that for three weeks the Army took the place of the Government and by skillful pressure obliged it to capitulate. Even if the Army did not wish to seize the State, it evidently had secured a new power; a sort of unwritten delegation of power authorized it to intervene in crises when the Government admitted that it was unable to maintain national unity and carry on the war.


The head of the Fifth Republic was quick to assert the civilian legitimacy of his régime and made patient efforts to deprive the Army little by little of its political powers. Officers were made to retire from administrative and political organs which they had been directing; the most political of the generals were transferred out of Algeria; the "Action Psychologique" was officially discontinued. Simultaneously, instead of accepting the Army's slogan of "integration," General de Gaulle set for it the objective of creating the necessary conditions for the Algerians to exercise self-determination.

Now, after two years, can it be said that the Army has resumed its traditional place in the State? Can one say that the Army obeys the State? In appearance it has submitted, or rather it has allied itself with the authority born out of its revolt. However, many facts make clear that it continues to play a decisive political role.

Not without grief did the principal army leaders in Algeria follow the orders of the Chief of State. In January 1960 General Massu openly declared himself hostile to self-determination[iii] and his departure from Algiers provoked a commotion which was a reproduction in miniature of May 13. In September, General Salan, who had headed the Army in Algeria in May 1958 and who had come back to Algiers in a civil capacity, also rose up against General de Gaulle's policy. These are grave symptoms, for they concern two officers who had been the most fervent partisans of General de Gaulle's return to power.

But there was something more disquieting still. The Army may momentarily have given up trying to impose its policy but it continues to be a political force, a massive pressure group with which the State constantly has to reckon. Thus it has been impossible so far, in spite of General de Gaulle's orders, to bring to justice the persons responsible for the death of Maurice Audin, Professor at the University of Algiers, who disappeared after being tortured by parachutists. The Army stands together to cover its own. Although "Action Psychologique" was suppressed it has been reconstituted under another name. Units of uncertain allegiance continue to carry out police operations that are often of a most cruel sort. And when complaints are made to General de Gaulle about the abuses of certain officers he replies: "And do you suppose that they obey me?"

Events at the beginning of 1960 help us to estimate the extent of the Army's political role. One section of it, notably the parachutists, tried in January to renew the operation of May 1958; they allowed a riot to develop in order to be able to intervene as arbitrator between the Government and the European rebels. But this time the majority of the Army did not follow suit and the Government won. However, General de Gaulle did not wish to exploit his victory, even though he had the support of virtually all of French opinion. Almost at once he left for Algeria in order to reassure the Army. The result of his tour of officers' messes was a severe blow to hopes for peace. In the same way it was army pressure which led to the failure of the Melun pourparlers last June. The military's demand for the surrender of arms deprived General de Gaulle's propositions to the F.L.N. of all meaning; and he demonstrated to the Army's satisfaction that the pourparlers were limited to the military conditions of a cease-fire and did not infringe on policy.

The conclusion is inevitable that the Army continues to exercise an occult political power which can be called the right to arbitrate or veto.[iv] The Army obeys, but its obedience is conditional: it obeys to the extent that the State conforms to the national interest, and of this the Army considers itself both the repository and the interpreter. The principal military leaders still believe that they are invested with a sort of national magistracy, superior to the civil power and indeed limiting that power's field of action. Besides, they are obeying a man rather than an institution--a man who, they do not forget, is in their debt.

The political role of the Army therefore is not revolutionary, nor even really active. There certainly are revolutionaries in the Army; many officers who came into contact with the miserable condition of the Moslems developed a sort of patriotic socialism, sincerely generous and anti-colonialist.[v] There also are reactionaries, who borrow their principles from Catholic conservatism and dream of reorganizing France on an authoritarian and corporative model. Various secret societies ("Armée-Nation," "Les Templiers," "Catena") maintain contact between the Army, para-military groups, police elements and extreme rightist politicians, with the aim of seizing power. Certain associations of reserve officers are in reality political clubs; officers on active duty keep them on the alert in defense of French Algeria. But although these activities are disquieting, the most dangerous plotting--between the Army and the Algerian "ultras"--has been considerably reduced by patient government action and by excesses of extremist leaders which turned the Army against them.

In essence, then, the political role of the Army remains negative: it is an invisible pressure, a permanent blackmail, exercised in the name of the superior interests of France and of the West. No longer does the Army tell the State what it must do but what it must not do. It fixes the limits beyond which it will not feel itself bound to obey. These are, first, if French sovereignty in Algeria were abandoned; second, if a Popular Front government were formed in France.


Thus the Army exercises an indirect political power of a new sort. General de Gaulle knows it and tries to divert the Army bit by bit from its complete preoccupation with Algeria. He wants to make it into a modern army, equipped with an atomic deterrent power, in which technicians will rapidly get the upper hand of the political generals. But how to achieve this goal while the war in Algeria goes on? And how to end the war in Algeria while the Army blocks negotiations? So far, General de Gaulle has not made a frontal attack on this dilemma. His preoccupation has been to achieve peace while avoiding a revolt or break in the Army. The recollection of its disobedience and schism in 1940 haunts him and, it is sometimes said, paralyzes him.

How long can this ambiguous situation continue? The subterranean pressure of the Army on the State creates a deep uneasiness. The Left holds the Army responsible for the continuation of the war and questions the legitimacy of a régime which depends on the military and does not dare impose its will upon it. An extreme example of the general uneasiness was the insubordination of a number of students, given public approval by an impressive list of professors, writers and artists. Thus the insubordination of certain army chiefs is answered by the insubordination of a group of intellectuals.

Is a brutal reckoning inevitable? It is important to note here that the Army is not to be considered as a unit. Among the officers, about a third seem determinedly hostile to the Government. The recent breakup of the Mali Federation, the disorders in the Congo, strengthen their conviction that independence leads to secession, anarchy and thence to Communism. However, many officers are still faithful to the apolitical tradition and are prepared to obey. The mass of the Army--the soldiers and non-commissioned officers, as well as the reserve officers--will not take part in a putsch, will even oppose it, at least to some extent. Their attitude follows public opinion, and in January 1960, as we have seen, this chose to follow the Chief of State against a military insurrection. In addition, the trade unions have made known their determination to respond to any attempted putsch by a general strike. France, pushing ahead towards modernization, is not inclined to submit to a military dictatorship. And the Army will not move if it feels that it has the majority of the country against it.

At any rate, there is no military leader at present who can take over the Army without a contest and rely upon it to defy the Government. Among the three Marshals of the last war, Leclerc and de Lattre de Tassigny, the two with the most prestige, are dead. The third, Alphonse Juin, has proclaimed his hostility to the policy of self-determination with special vigor because he himself is of Algerian origin; but he has limited political sense and does not seem to have either the qualities or the defects which push a military leader to seize the State.

It seems unlikely, therefore, that the Army will give up its peaceful pressure and again intervene with force. However, as the Algerian conflict continues, the Government will soon find itself facing a choice. For France, this war is on the way to being won militarily and on the way to being lost politically. The Army will not stand by passively and see its military successes wiped out by a political victory of the F.L.N., nor will it ever resign itself to abandoning to enemy reprisals the 160,000 harkis (Moslem auxiliaries) whom it has enrolled and the Moslem civilians who have collaborated with it. The Army would consider this much more than a political impossibility--it would be a crime, a betrayal of a word of honor. Equally certain it is that if General de Gaulle had to leave office before the end of the Algerian war the Army would intervene in the choice of his successor; no government THE FRENCH ARMY IN POLITICS 195 could be installed without the Army giving its proxy. In this way its indirect power would become a formative power.

The scope for negotiation is therefore narrow. One thing is certain. Intervention by the United Nations or any political solution considered humiliating for France would result in a revolt by the Army or at least a split in it; activist elements would join forces with the European "ultras" to create a very grave situation not just for France but perhaps for world peace.

The political action of the Army thus depends on how the situation in Algeria evolves. But it depends even more essentially on the institutions of France. French democracy has, so to say, evaporated; public opinion is passive, the parties count for almost nothing. Consequently, the body of the State and the living forces of the nation face each other lacking any interpreter. On one side the Army; on the other the university, the trade unions. This is a state of latent civil war and it cannot be prolonged indefinitely without coming to a head. If the French people are not successful in forming a modern and stable democracy, the Army will continue, openly or covertly, to bring pressure to bear on national policy. If the people are successful, the Army will resume its proper place--a place which, we must admit, it was encouraged to leave by the weakness and vacillation of the civil government.

[i] For example, here is the conclusion of a talk given at SHAPE in November 1957 by General Allard, Army Corps Commander in Algeria: "The Soviet Union has succeeded in crystallizing the defense of the free world on one objective--to persuade the adversary not to resort to total war. In this way many people are misled into believing that its principal line of effort is not the direct East-West axis but a vast enveloping arc passing through China, the Far East, South Asia, the Middle East, Egypt and North Africa, ending up by encircling Europe. This now has almost come to pass; all that remains for Communism to attain its goal is to snatch Algeria from France."

[ii] Colonel Trinquier, to the Associated Press, September 1958.

[iii] "The Army no longer understands this policy . . . . So far it has not shown its power. At the right moment it can impose its will." (Statement to the German journalist Kempski, January 15, 1960.) These words show how conscious the Army was of its political power; their gravity consists in the fact that they were spoken by an Army Corps General, an old comrade of General de Gaulle and considered the pillar of Gaullism in the Army in Algeria.

[iv] Raoul Girardet, "Pouvoir civil et pouvoir militaire dans la France contemporaine," Revue Française de Science politique, March 1960.

[v] They are influenced by the group, "Patrie et Progrès." For example, a colonel nationalized a certain number of land holdings and had them developed according to the strictest principles of the Chinese commune.

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  • JEAN-MARIE DOMENACH, Editor of Esprit, Paris; a member of the Catholic Left, active in the Resistance during World War II; author of "La Propagande Politique"
  • More By Jean-Marie Domenach