Blog post

The Repressed Origins of the Fifth Republic

The 1968 revolts in France live in popular memory as the country's most significant political moment in the twentieth century. In this extensive interview, Grey Anderson urges us to turn our attention instead a decade earlier to 1958 and the fall of the Fourth Republic. Anderson argues that the Fourth Republic's demise was a coup that allowed de Gaulle to seize power and crush his oppostion.

21 September 2021

The Repressed Origins of the Fifth Republic

NB: This interview was originally appeared in Le Vent se lève, 8 May 2021

In a long interview, historian Grey Anderson discusses his book La Guerre civile en France: 1958-1962, du coup d’État gaulliste à la fin de l’OAS, published in 2018 by La Fabrique; Verso is currently preparing an English version. Understanding the foundation of the Fifth Republic requires studying in depth the role of the French military institution in the period from the end of the Second World War. This was the task Grey Anderson undertook, revising in this way the standard approach of many historians in considering this major sequence in contemporary French political history. Interview by Victor Woillet and François Gaüzère; transcription by Dany Meyniel.


Your doctoral thesis, which led to your book La guerre civile en France de 1958 à 1962, was completed in 2016. Can you briefly explain the historiographical context in which you began your research?

At the time that I started my doctorate, there was a great deal of excitement among historians about the Algerian War – I have in mind the books of Raphaëlle Branche and Sylvie Thénault, published in the early 2000s – as well as a particular fascination with the subject in the United States, not just on the part of academics, but also the military and certain political leaders, who interpreted it in the light of the counter-insurgency carried out by the US army in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, this renewal of research on the Algerian conflict was not accompanied by a comparable interest in the political crisis that it triggered in France. During a colloquium held at Sciences Po in 2008, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Fifth Republic, one speaker pointed out that there was no historiography of 13 May 1958 as such. Yet a change of regime is no small thing! People may find my argument exaggerated, but I was struck by the relatively modest place occupied by this episode in the history of Europe after 1945. The most common image presented is one of a peaceful and pacified continent, even somewhat bored… The main themes discussed were those of economic growth and the idea of a conservative restoration after the shock of the two world wars. However, for anyone interested in the French case, it is clear how far this narrative is from reality, despite the omnipresent notion of the ‘Trente Glorieuses’ proposed by Jean Fourastié in the late 1970s. For a start, it does not make much sense to talk about ‘post-war France’ before 1962 at the earliest, given that the country was at war almost continuously from 1939 until the Évian agreements. I well remember the publication of a comprehensive book on contemporary Europe by the American historian James Sheehan, entitled Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?[1] in reference to a famous song recorded by Marlene Dietrich, among others. For me, it was clear that the soldiers had never really left and that they continued to play a very important role, in France as elsewhere.

Speaking of historiography, there is also a more internal French dimension to these debates. Since the 1980s, a form of revisionism has imposed itself on discussion of the Fourth Republic. For a long time, this was perceived in Gaullist terms, as an irreparably dysfunctional regime, subservient to foreign powers and unsuited to the needs of a modern and technical society. Then a completely different reading developed, insisting on the continuities between the Fourth Republic and what followed it. This is the argument recently made by Herrick Chapman, who speaks of a ‘long reconstruction’ spanning the entire period from the Liberation to the end of the Algerian War.[2] On many points, such as economic and social policy, the quest for a certain autonomy in foreign relations, or projects of ‘state reform’, this perspective is rather convincing. However, if you follow it to its conclusion, the 1958 crisis becomes rather enigmatic – Chapman’s excellent book mentions it only in passing – and the birth of the Fifth Republic, however turbulent, is seen merely as the culmination of a process in gestation. While not entirely wrong, this view does not, in my view, adequately capture the exceptional nature of the circumstances that led to the emergence of the Fifth Republic.

To speak more specifically about 13 May 1958, there is certainly a literature on the subject, and historians who have worked on it. But I remember being struck by the Manichean character of this historiography. On the one hand, there is an ‘orthodox’, consensual narrative, according to which, despite certain shady aspects and the existence of various plots in the spring of 1958, de Gaulle was the saviour of the ‘republican order’. In this vein, I have in mind a very rich book by Odile Rudelle published in 1988 with the support of the Fondation Charles de Gaulle,[3] which seeks to associate de Gaulle with a line of democratic and liberal thinkers of the nineteenth century. On the other hand, there is journalistic production, following books by reporters such as the Bromberger brothers, which highlights the machinations and other manoeuvres that the press made a big deal of at the time. Some work in this genre, notably that of Christophe Nick,[4] provides valuable insights. However, the overall view is somewhat distorted by this insistence on the most inflammatory aspects, thus attributing to the actors an inordinate power and foresight.

It is interesting, in fact, to read these two historiographic opposites in combination. Both currents make a useful contribution to the understanding of this crisis, but they both tend – I am generalising – to accept at face value the interpretations, concepts and problematics offered by contemporaries themselves. Was it a coup d’état, a velvet coup d’état, a transition or a simple change of government? The Fourth Republic died; should we speak of murder, suicide, or even ‘euthanasia’ as René Rémond suggested? For my part, I was more interested in the process by which these adaptations and concepts were forged. In this respect, my greatest inspiration comes from French political sociology, and in particular the works of Brigitte Gaïti and Delphine Dulong.[5] These books take a critical look at the dominant narrative of the advent of the Fifth Republic, examining the role played by the notions of modernity and modernisation in concealing other issues, and the construction of a political consensus around the idea of belonging to a new era. This had the effect, and in some ways still does, of erasing or neutralising the rupture and shock of 1958.

In my thesis, I wanted to extend the line of research of Gaïti and Dulong by focusing on the army, an institution at the centre of the 1958 crisis and whose ‘modernisation’, conceived as a means of depoliticising it, was a central preoccupation for the Gaullist regime in its early years.

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In your analysis of the birth of the Fifth Republic, you mention a correspondent from Die Zeit, who wrote that 13 May 1958 was a successful 6 February 1934. Can you explain this reading of 13 May?

It’s a quote from André Siegfried, later taken up by historians such as Serge Berstein. But, in fact, the reference to February 1934 was omnipresent at the time. Generally speaking, at moments of great political upheaval historical analogy is particularly important: it serves both to explain a new situation by bringing it into a familiar framework, and to make people understand an event by imposing its own interpretation on others. Thus, what Germans call the Kampfbegriffe, the controversial terms that fuelled the debates in 1958, were very often analogies. Just think of the vocabulary that has come down to us: ‘public salvation’, ‘putsch’, ‘civil war’... The symbol of the events of February 1934, which most of the actors of the time had experienced, is particularly evocative. They were in everyone’s mind from 13 May onwards, first of all for the far-right militants who, like the young Jean-Marie Le Pen, marched down the Champs-Élysées to the Place de la Concorde, where they were pushed back before heading for the Palais Bourbon. In the evening, during the investiture debate, Paul Ramadier invoked the support that Blum had given to Daladier a quarter of a century earlier, and implored the deputies to unite around Pflimlin so as to restore order in Algiers. To which the right-wing benches retorted that it was not Daladier but Gaston Doumergue, recalled to form a government of national unity, who had put an end to the disorder of the fascist leagues. The allusion was clear.

If comparisons with 1934 more or less spontaneously imposed themselves on all political forces, it was the Communist Party that made the most intensive and consistent use of them. The failed coup of 6 February 1934 and the demonstration by the left which followed on 12 February occupied a central place in the memory of the party. It was the great moment of ‘fraternisation’ between Communists and Socialists, opening the way to the Popular Front. It was on this basis that the PCF positioned itself in the last two weeks of May 1958, in terms of both its leadership and in its propaganda. The watchword was ‘republican defence’ in the face of the fascist threat in a concerted effort with the SFIO, in the name of the old anti-Bonapartist tradition and the anti-fascism of the inter-war period. The failure of this strategy, with the refusal of Guy Mollet’s party to accept it, was undoubtedly a major cause of the fall of the Fourth Republic. The episode also had repercussions on the PCF’s line in the following years. Given that the Communist leaders had seen in de Gaulle, if not a fascist, at least a kind of slope towards fascism, their capacity to interpret the new regime and the ups and downs of its Algerian policy remained rather limited.

So, if 13 May could be considered a ‘successful 6 February’, it is first of all because in 1958, the conjunction of virulent anti-communism and the international context of the Cold War ruled out any possibility of a common front of the left. The formula of André Siegfried, dean of Sciences Po, father of electoral sociology and a racist distinguished by Vichy, says nothing different. What Siegfried basically meant is that you don’t defend the republic with the Communists. At the same time, subsequent events clearly thwarted the hopes (or fears) of those who saw in May 1958 a revenge for the disappointments of 1934: once installed in Matignon and then in the Élysée,[6] de Gaulle worked firmly to bring his more excitable supporters back in line, some of whom would later embark on the bloody adventure of the OAS.

On this point, I would like to return briefly to the career of Armin Mohler, the correspondent of Die Zeit whom you mentioned earlier. He was an inflammatory character, Swiss by origin; he supposedly tried to join the Waffen-SS in 1942 but was rejected on physical grounds. After the war he wrote a thesis on the ‘conservative revolution’ under the Weimar Republic, and worked for a time as Ernst Jünger’s private secretary. Later, as a journalist, he became a connoisseur of the French far right, which he did not hesitate to describe as fascist; in the 1950s he even expressed the idea that France had become the world capital of fascism, and it was in this light that he saw the events of 13 May 1958 as an attempt to repeat the failed coup of February 1934.

Despite these affinities, Armin Mohler soon realised that the ambitions of the quasi-fascist groupuscules in Algeria and metropolitan France were doomed to failure. Street battles were a thing of the past, as was the cause of French Algeria. I don’t say much about this in my book, but there is an interesting exchange between Mohler and his old friend Carl Schmitt.[7] While Mohler admired the return of de Gaulle and the beginnings of an independent foreign policy, which he opposed to the submission of West Germany to its American protector, Schmitt was more reserved; he shared the anti-Gaullism of his French friends and correspondents, such as Alfred Fabre-Luce, and retailed the Vichy gossip that de Gaulle had been a Jew and a Freemason... Traces of this can be seen in Schmitt’s theory of the partisan,[8] in which he praises Raoul Salan, commander-in-chief of the French forces in Algeria at the time of 13 May, a member of the famous ‘handful of generals’ who led the April 1961 putsch and ended up as the boss of the OAS. While Mohler placed his hopes on the revival, under de Gaulle’s leadership, of an authoritarian nationalism, modernised and freed from outdated ideological labels, Schmitt questioned the viability of any narrowly national policy in post-1945 Europe and had an indulgent assessment of Salan’s colonialist extremism. I dwell on this anecdote of intellectual history because it seems to me indicative of the dilemmas that ran through the right at that time, and a fortiori the far right. Similar themes can be found in Alain de Benoist’s first book devoted to Salan, but that is another story.

You view the birth of the Fifth Republic as emanating from a Gaullist coup d’état. Can you go back over this concept and explain it for our readers?

In my book, I use the concept of coup d’état, but I also try to question the way in which this definition was constructed and contested by the actors of the time. What happened in May 1958? Firstly, a demonstration in Algiers turned into a quasi-insurrectional riot; the military took control and, under pressure from Gaullist militants on the ground, presented Paris with a fait accompli. It was the typical scenario of the pronunciamento, repeated ten days later in Corsica. In the meantime, the government noted alarming defections within the repressive apparatus of the state. Until the parliament voted for the investiture of de Gaulle on 1 June, the spectre of an intervention by armed forces from Corsica or North Africa constantly hovered over French national life. This really was a form of violent political action, with the real possibility of resorting to arms. There was a lot of discussion about the general’s personal involvement in this affair; people wondered whether he was aware of all the manoeuvres carried out by his supporters in his name, whether he knew the broad outlines of ‘Opération Résurrection’, and so on. This question seems to me rather secondary. What really needs to be stressed is that de Gaulle, with the complicity of a majority of parliamentarians, succeeded in giving his seizure of power a façade of legality. And it worked. One may wonder about the complicity of the leaders of the bourgeois parties of the time in the subversion of the legislature, what the Franco-American sociologist Ivan Ermakoff calls ‘ruling oneself out’,[9] reminiscent, as some parliamentary voices maintained, of the vote of 10 July 1940. In any case, this democratic anointing does not detract from the exceptional character of the sequence; on the contrary, in my opinion, it was even the guarantee of its success. And if history has mainly remembered de Gaulle’s skill as head of state in resolving the crisis, and if there is strictly speaking no black legend about the foundation of the Fifth Republic, it had nonetheless the flavour of a coup. One reader told me that the leaders of the Spanish golpe of February 1981, one of whom – General Armada – was apparently an intern at the École Militaire in Paris shortly after May 1958, took the French example as their model. They christened their attempt ‘Operation de Gaulle’...

The connection between the military subversion and the affirmation of the new republican regime is clear enough. Did this coup d’état, or this seizure of power marked by the action of the military, in some way shape the form of the Fifth Republic?

For a long time, Germany was seen as the archetypal militaristic nation. Nowadays, it is probably the United States that embodies this tendency in the eyes of the world. But that fails to do justice to France. Going back to the nineteenth century, the army played a key role in the repression of all the major popular uprisings that the country experienced, from the Canuts revolts to the Fourmies shootings.[10] Marx also proposed that the motto ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ should be replaced by ‘Infantry, Cavalry, Artillery’. In the twentieth century, apart from the gendarmerie, the military distanced itself from the task of maintaining order, at least in metropolitan France – with a few exceptions, for example interior minister Jules Moch’s use of the Parachute battalion to break the strike of the Lorraine miners in 1948. For all that, the relationship between the government and its army remained tense. The colonial events that marked the history of the Fourth Republic bear witness to this, and its downfall was in some ways the result. In any case, the subject is more complex than we often want to believe. In the series of crises that shook the last years of the Fourth Republic, it was more often collusion than open disobedience that characterised civil-military relations. The fact remains that Moch, back at the interior ministry at the time of the Algiers putsch, could no longer count on the troops. For many of those who rallied, more or less enthusiastically, to de Gaulle, he was the only person capable of imposing his authority on the factious soldiers. This is what eventually happened, not without difficulty. To do this, de Gaulle relied on two narratives, that of modernisation and that of national independence. The acquisition of nuclear weapons, initiated under the Fourth Republic, combined the two; the force de frappe was conceived both as a guarantee of a certain autonomy on the international scene and, incidentally, as a bonus for an army that was mourning its colonial glories. On both counts, the results were mixed, to say the least; in any case, after a series of purges, amnesties and adjustments, the new regime managed to regain control of its armed wing. Of course, neither the end of the Algerian War nor the departure of General de Gaulle put an end to the interventionism of the French armed forces, which grew steadily since the early 1970s, especially under Socialist governments. In view of the state of the political debate, it can be said that the ‘sovereign’ prerogative in military matters, inaugurated by de Gaulle, has remained intact until today, if not actually strengthened.

As far as the institutional aspects are concerned, we find a somewhat paradoxical situation. Although de Gaulle succeeded in re-establishing the pre-eminence of civilian authority over the army, he was only able to do so at the cost of a significant militarisation of the state and modes of governance. Perhaps the most significant area is that of executive power. In his book on the subject, Nicolas Roussellier[11] demonstrates how the Fifth Republic instituted a qualitative transformation of the presidential function, which would in future be modelled on military command. De Gaulle’s style, his habit of donning a uniform at decisive moments, his way of embodying and, so to speak, ‘personalising’ the presidency, clearly had something to do with this. Roussellier rightly insists on the so-called credibility of the nuclear deterrent as a factor in the reasoning that led to the very controversial constitutional revision of 1962, which introduced the election of the president by direct universal suffrage. We should also look at the functioning of the presidency, the ascendancy of its particular staff and the fact that it chairs the defence councils. I would like to mention here an article that appeared recently in Le Monde, on the initiative of Brigitte Gaïti and Delphine Dulong, whom I mentioned earlier, stressing the increased importance of the defence councils during the current pandemic period.

One final dynamic is worth discussing, in my opinion. The late 1950s and early 1960s marked a profound transformation in the way national security was conceived, in a context doubly marked by the counter-insurgency in Algeria and the Cold War. In 1960, a commission of jurists charged with revising the penal code proposed to eliminate the distinction between internal and external state security, a fundamental principle of republican law for a whole century. The previous year, the government had reformulated by decree the definition of national defence, recognising intermediate degrees between war and peace. These tendencies already existed at the beginning of the Fifth Republic and were part of a wider movement, in no way limited to France. At the same time, the advent of a strong government, at a time of intense violence both in France and on the other side of the Mediterranean, gave a new impetus to the changes underway. This climate also justified the increasing use of emergency measures: Article 16 of the Constitution, applied for the only time so far during the ‘generals’ putsch’ of April 1961, is probably the best known illustration. But we can also mention the law on the state of emergency, which was certainly promulgated under the Fourth Republic but was extended to metropolitan France for the first time in May 1958, with a result familiar to activists of our own generation. I will end my answer by noting that the reason this new legislation was drafted, rather than using existing jurisprudence on the state of siege, was precisely because the military was not trusted to handle the situation. This mistrust continued long after the return of de Gaulle.

Is it possible to see a form of continuity in the way relations between the military and political spheres are structured, particularly taking into account the mutations of the republican regime since the First World War, starting with the famous schism between the high command and the Chamber of Deputies, as Nicolas Roussellier suggests? In other words, can we observe in the period you have studied a simple mutation of the regime and the republican model, which did not initially integrate the military into the executive, or did 1958 lead to a real change of paradigm in this matter?

It would certainly be wrong to see 1958 as a clean break with the past. There have been other cases of the exercise of a strong executive power in the history of the French Republic, particularly in times of war; Clemenceau’s control of the general staff is one example, and Auriol’s management of the Indochina War is perhaps another. As you say, this history can be explained by linking it to a succession of attempts by political leaders to reassert their predominance over the high command – attempts to reintegrate the military and the political, if you like – which were only achieved with the arrival of the Fifth Republic. However, and, on this point, I find Roussellier’s argument very convincing, one can admit these elements of continuity without losing sight of the radical difference between Gaullist government practice and the republican tradition, insofar as the latter was defined above all by parliamentary sovereignty. The French ‘republican model’ arose precisely from the rejection of personal power, whether monarchist or Bonapartist. And although the difficulty of controlling the military was undoubtedly one of the weaknesses of the Fourth Republic, there was nothing inevitable about the form of solution finally adopted.

This is a crucial point, because there are differences in people’s appreciation of the collapse of the regime born in 1946. Some see this collapse as a historical necessity, in the sense that old-style parliamentarism would have been incompatible with the demands of total war and the governance of a modern, globalised technological economy; others point to the contingent and chance nature of the solution offered by de Gaulle and his collaborators. Thus, it is possible to believe that the Fourth Republic was at the end of its tether on certain fronts, but that the new regime could have taken a completely different turn. In this respect, it is interesting to trace how several fractions of the non-Communist left interpreted the advent of the Fifth Republic, and the early accommodation of some of these to the new institutions at the very moment when François Mitterrand was fervently denouncing the ‘permanent coup d’état’. If we follow the evolution of the new left, the modernising left often associated with the premiership of Mendès-France, we can say that the path of the Socialists to power was prepared well in advance. If you leaf through magazines such as France-Observateur or L’Express at the time, you will notice the omnipresence of this ‘modernisation’ imperative, which was also central to the thinking of originally anti-Gaullist circles such as the Club Jean Moulin, which eventually rallied to the new regime. It should be remembered that the Club Jean Moulin, founded in May 1958 by Daniel Cordier and others, was originally intended to organise armed resistance in the event of an attack by shock troops on the National Assembly. So it is impressive to see how, in a relatively short time, this network went from the paramilitary defence of the republic and fierce anti-Gaullism to the much more peaceful mission of a kind of technocratic think tank. In the end, this constellation played a significant role in the left’s conversion to presidentialism. The historian Claire Andrieu has given a fascinating account of all this.[12]

In your opinion, what role did anti-Americanism play in the birth of the Fifth Republic, and in the political networks that forged the Gaullist institutions?

First of all, we have to distinguish between two varieties of anti-Americanism: on the one hand, a kind of chauvinistic attitude that goes back at least to the 1930s and has most often has a right-wing connotation; on the other hand, a rejection of US imperialism, that is to say, of American interference in France but also in the rest of the world. That said, some have interpreted the events of 13 May 1958 as an anti-American revolt: this interpretation was first put forward by the Russian-British journalist Alexander Werth, then taken up by the American historian Matthew Connelly.[13] The argument makes sense if you examine the foreign policy of the United States under the Eisenhower presidency (1953-61). There was a tendency on the part of Washington to favour certain non-Communist national liberation movements in the countries of the South, with the idea, roughly speaking, of building ‘ramparts against Bolshevism’. It was on this basis, and not – as has been claimed – from any kind of anti-colonialist tradition, that the United States exerted a major influence on the independence struggle of the former French protectorates of Morocco and Tunisia, through its diplomacy but also through its intelligence services and vassal trade unions. This occurred in a context of strong economic dependence of France on the United States. The US Treasury had largely financed the Indochina War, and despite the impressive growth rate of the French economy, the deficit in the balance of external payments required the French to seek loans from the Americans throughout the 1950s.

The story of the terminal crisis of the Fourth Republic can therefore be dated from the start of 1958, when Jean Monnet went to Washington to request yet another loan from the US government and the IMF. In return, the Americans asked him to commit France to major budget cuts, including to its military budget, and the redeployment of about 100,000 soldiers stationed in Algeria. Matthew Connelly considers this episode one of the first ‘structural adjustment’ programmes imposed by the IMF on a debtor country. It was in this tense climate that the Sakiet Sidi Youssef affair occurred.[14] The affair gave rise to a complaint brought by Tunisia to the UN, following which the Security Council entrusted a ‘good offices’ mission to two diplomats, one British and the other American. This new Anglo-American interference in French politics, intolerable for most elected representatives, led to the fall of the government of Félix Gaillard and triggered the terminal crisis of the regime. Significantly, before storming the government headquarters in Algiers on 13 May, demonstrators ransacked an American cultural centre in the city. Nevertheless, the pied-noir community, and the French right more generally, were not inherently anti-American in the anti-imperialist sense – or at least they were only marginally so. Indeed, most of the fervent supporters of French Algeria were also fervent supporters of NATO; they wanted to convince the US leadership that their struggle was that of the free world. They were not entirely wrong, given that the departments of French Algeria were part of both NATO and the European Economic Community.

Moreover, when de Gaulle began to speak out increasingly clearly in favour of a solution of self-determination in Algeria, the Atlanticism of his right-wing opponents became ever more fierce. These positions were expressed in particular during the parliamentary debates on the force de frappe. Zealous defenders of the Atlantic alliance were to be found not only among the Socialists, Radicals and Christian Democrats, but also on the far right of François Valentin and Jean-Marie Le Pen.

This Atlanticism was also evident in the failed putsch of April 1961, during which the factious generals – the ‘handful’ as De Gaulle called them – seemed sincerely to believe that Washington would help them. At the time, there was talk of possible links with the CIA, which were of course formally denied by the Kennedy administration. The whole episode remains nebulous; it is difficult to believe that JFK, who had consistently supported Algerian independence in the US Senate, would have made a pact with the mutinous generals, although it is possible to imagine more or less unofficial contacts with American intelligence agents or officers. De Gaulle said he did not believe in this hypothesis, which did not prevent him from seeing the integrated command of NATO – which France would leave five years later – as a factor of military insubordination.

This brings us back to another subject, national independence as de Gaulle conceived it, and his denunciation of the excessive power of the United States. Despite the stormy relations they had with de Gaulle during the Second World War, the Americans did not speak out against his return to office in 1958. On the contrary, they actively supported the ‘de Gaulle solution’, seeing it as the only way to avoid a Popular Front and a government with the Communists. Despite considerable frustration, and differences within the various American administrations, this has always been their position. In the end, it is better to have a grumpy but secure ally at the heart of the West European security system than a more compliant regime prone to serial ministerial crises. For all that, I do not accept the opinion of certain Anglophone historians, initially articulated by Henry Kissinger and conveyed in France by Raymond Aron and other representatives of the American services, that de Gaulle’s foreign policy was mere posturing. It may well be right to qualify the actual autonomy that de Gaulle had on the world stage, but the fact remains that he went further in his criticism of US hegemony than any other European head of state. In this respect, the contrast with his successors is staggering. At the risk of an abusive generalisation, it is tempting to say that the current Fifth Republic combines the worst aspects of the Gaullist legacy, retaining its authoritarianism while abandoning what was supposed to make for its ‘greatness’: a presidency with hypertrophied powers on the domestic front but manifest impotence on the international scene.

Our last question concerns memory. People hardly ever speak of 13 May 1958. How do you explain this obscuring of a date that was so central to the advent of the Fifth Republic? Is it actually a retrospective effect of May 68, whose spirit, if we follow Pierre Nora’s analyses, is more representative of what France is today, or is there a different set of phenomena that explains this state of affairs?

It’s true that obscuring, forgetting, silence and repression are key concepts in the historiography of twentieth-century France, particularly the historiography of the French right. We may think of the Dreyfus affair, the threat of fascism in the 1920s and 1930s, the ‘Vichy syndrome’, the dirty war in Indochina, Algeria and so on. What I can say is that instead of seeing this as simple concealment, negation or forgetting, it should perhaps be understood more in the Lacanian sense, as a mechanism characterised by the return of the repressed – in the sense that a trauma is not recognised as such at the moment it happens. The repression appears after the fact, if you like, in the memory of the traumatic experience. Of course, this is only an analogy with the clinical situation, and probably a dubious one. However, it is clear that memory itself, and even more so commemoration, sometimes manages to repress episodes that are not very glorious or even disturbing; this is how some people have interpreted the echoes of July 1940 in May 1958. In 1962, at the time of the Salan trial and especially during the constitutional referendum, a decisive moment in the political history of France, there were already efforts to undermine the significance of 13 May, to make it disappear. Following Brigitte Gaïti, I quote from General de Gaulle’s autumn 1962 speeches in which he defined the regime contrary to its actual origins, stating that he, de Gaulle, had returned to the forefront of the stage precisely to foil a coup d’état. It seems to me that it is in this same context that we should understand what happened in 1968. In the now monumental historiography on May 1968, an object of commemoration par excellence – without going as far as Pierre Nora, for whom its sole meaning would be commemorative – very little is said about the fact that this month also marked the tenth anniversary of the birth of the Fifth Republic, in other words of the current regime. It is enough to look at photos of the demonstrations, the banners and placards that read ‘Ten years already, my General!’, etc. And the government was extremely conscious of this remembered historical link. What I want to say is that this crisis was also the occasion for a return of the repressed memories of 1958, a return that culminated in a new repression, the so-called flight to Baden-Baden and the great Gaullist demonstration of 30 May on the Champs-Élysées, marking the coming together of the right after the fractures and fratricidal struggles of the Algerian years. With the end of this sequence and the amnesties that were soon to follow, we see once again the mechanics of a neutralisation whose effects in a way persist to this day.


[1] James John Sheehan, Where Have All the Soldiers Gone? The Transformation of Modern Europe (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2009).

[2] Herrick Chapman, France’s Long Reconstruction: In Search of the Modern Republic (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018).

[3] Odile Rudelle, Mai 1958. De Gaulle et la République (Paris: Plon, 1988).

[4] Christophe Nick, Résurrection. Naissance de la Ve République, un coup d’État démocratique (Paris: Fayard, 1998).

[5] Delphine Dulong, Moderniser la politique. Aux origines de la Ve République (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1997); Brigitte Gaïti, De Gaulle, prophète de la Cinquième République (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 1998).

[6] De Gaulle was initially appointed prime minister by the National Assembly, then voted president under the new constitution he proposed.

[7] Carl Schmitt, Briefwechsel mit einem seiner Schüler (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1995).

[8] Carl Schmitt, Théorie du partisan, trans. Marie-Louise Steinhauser (Paris: Flammarion, 1992).

[9] Ivan Ermakoff, Ruling Oneself Out: A Theory of Collective Abdications (Chapel Hill: Duke University Press, 2008).

[10] On 1 May 1891, the first celebration of International Workers’ Day in France, troops fired on striking miners at Fourmies in the Nord, killing nine and injuring dozens.

[11] Nicolas Roussellier, La force de gouverner. Le pouvoir exécutif en France, XIXe-XXIe siècles (Paris: Gallimard, 2015).

[12] Claire Andrieu, Pour l’amour de la République. Le Club Jean Moulin, 1958-1970 (Paris: Fayard, 2002).

[13] Matthew Connelly, A Diplomatic Revolution: Algeria’s Fight for Independence and the Origins of the Post-Cold War Era (Oxford: OUP, 2002).

[14] The bombing of a Tunisian village by the French army on 8 February 1958, targeting FLN fighters, which caused 70 civilian victims and around 150 injured.

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The End of the French Intellectual
Internationally acclaimed Israeli historian Shlomo Sand made his mark with books such as The Invention of the Jewish People and The Invention of the Land of Israel. Returning here to an early fasci...
A People's History of the French Revolution
The assault on the Bastille, the Reign of Terror, Danton mocking his executioner, Robespierre dispensing a fearful justice, and the archetypal gadfly Marat – the events and figures of the French Re...
May Day Manifesto 1968
The original publication of the May Day Manifesto in 1967 collected together the most influential radical voices of the era. Among the seventy signatories were Raymond Williams, E. P. Thompson, Stu...
The Adventure of French Philosophy
The Adventure of French Philosophy is essential reading for anyone interested in what Badiou calls the “French moment” in contemporary thought.Badiou explores the exceptionally rich and varied worl...
Jean-Paul Sartre
No post-war philosopher acquired such world-wide fame as Jean-Paul Sartre, or occupied such a commanding position within the difficult history of the European Left after the war. Yet the very scale...

Filed under: 1968, algeria, france, grey-anderson