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Charles de Gaulle, Algeria, & the JQ

[1]2,957 words

Today I wish to talk about Charles de Gaulle and some seldom-examined aspects of the Algerian Crisis that spanned 1954 to 1962. But in order to edge into all that, I first have to talk about one of my favorite and oft-viewed movies, The Day of the Jackal (1973; the original version).

De Gaulle himself is a character in that film, since the whole plot revolves around assassination attempts on him in the early 1960s. While the story is invented, the factual background is depicted with a precision lamentably missing in most historical dramas. We see President de Gaulle tooling out of the Elysée Palace in his spiffy Citroën DS and pinning medals on veterans in Montparnasse to celebrate the anniversary of Liberation Day (August 25, 1944). But he never actually speaks; although de Gaulle is the major driver of the story, his decisions and confidences all happen off-screen.

We’re told he refuses to hide from crowds or move about with an armed phalanx of bodyguards, even though he knows there have been attempts on his life, and is told there is another one in the making. And there we have the engine of the plot: Since the President won’t hide himself, the Sûreté nationale and the cabinet ministers must track down the assassin, code name “Jackal,” before de Gaulle’s next big public appearance.

The Jackal himself is an impossibly brilliant, snappy, handsome guy (Edward Fox). He’s also a cold-blooded murderer, as is only right; we see at least three bare-handed killings before he aims at de Gaulle. But you watch raptly, cheering for him all the while, as he goes about his nasty business: ordering a custom-made sniper rifle that can be concealed in a crutch; murdering a document counterfeiter who tries to blackmail him; seducing people of both sexes so he can hide out in their homes. After a dozen viewings, I still get to the end half-hoping that this time the Jackal will finally blow the poor President’s head open with that hollow-point bullet.

The Day of the Jackal is based on a novel by Frederick Forsyth (his first, actually), and it’s that rare thing in adaptations: a production that is far better than the book. Offhand I can think of only two other films of which this is true. One is The Godfather (Part I), and the other is Strangers on a Train. But in the first example, the adaptation is superior mainly because Coppola cut out all the flabby subplots from the middle of the novel (cringeworthy, smutty stuff; I suppose Mario Puzo, writing his first novel in the late ‘60s, was aiming for a kind of Valley of the Dolls thing), and just distilled the opening and closing chapters into a shooting script. The other story, Strangers on a Train, works better in the film because Hitchcock greatly altered the plot. In the book by Patricia Highsmith (Pat’s first novel, too), the Guy Haines character is an architect, and actually does accomplish the murder-trade with crazy Bruno. Bruno kills Guy’s wife, Guy kills Bruno’s father, and then Guy confesses to the police at the end. Not nearly as sympathetic as the Farley Granger’s movie Guy, a tennis champ who doesn’t murder.

There are no such eviscerations or major plot alterations in Jackal’s script. The film rather faithfully follows Forsyth’s original narrative, and the minor changes that occur are all improvements. Much of this is simply the result of casting. The two female characters in Forsyth are vain, unattractive, and not particularly bright. They’re always checking themselves in the mirror, looking for signs of a thickening waist or sagging breasts, thinking, “Can I still hook a man?” (Young Forsyth absorbed a lot of trashy fiction, one imagines.) But the women in the film are bright and attractive. One of them is a baroness with a chateau in the rolling hills of the Massif Central. The Jackal meets her in a countryside hotel, beds her, then finds his way to her house, where he sleeps with her again, and then strangles her. (She opened his luggage and discovered his secret.)

That these two elegant people would get lucky with each other in a rural auberge is very believable and (may I say) true to life. In the book, the baroness is just a self-centered, low-class doxy taking revenge on her elderly rake of a husband, who’s pawing around Paris showgirls. In the movie the baroness is a – well, a very stylish baroness.

After killing the baroness, the Jackal goes to Paris and has to find a place to hide out. Hotels are out; the police are on the lookout, rounding up all the guest cards. This is the trickiest part of the story. The Jackal can’t risk being seen on the street. The cops and the Sûreté have obtained a copy of his passport photo. In the novel, the Jackal goes to a gay bar in the Latin Quarter, finds a pickup, and disguises himself with lipstick and eye makeup before he goes back out on the street. Cops stop him, but then back away in disgust when faced with a flouncy queen. By contrast, the film’s version of the homosexual episode is deft and hip: The Jackal has a cabbie drive him to a Turkish bath, where he immediately hooks up with a posh, goatéed art connoisseur and gourmet. As in his brief affair with the baroness, physical attractiveness smooths away plot hurdles: The Jackal is credibly a guy people want to go to bed with. He holes up at his new friend’s flat for a day or so. But then that passport picture turns up all over the TV news, and it’s time for Monsieur Goatée to get the choke treatment.

What strengthens the plot more than anything else – even more than nice travelogue visuals and cute people – is what’s left out: the backstory, the whole reason why the rogue army officers of the Organisation Armée Secrète (OAS), or Secret Army Resistance, which was the underground nationalist resistance (and which existed in reality), want to kill de Gaulle in the first place, and why they therefore hire an unknown, nameless assassin to do the job. That would be the story of the Algerian Crisis, which dominated print and broadcast news for years, in France and elsewhere, with a mind-deadening monotony. You could have Ken Burns do a twelve-part documentary on the Algerian Crisis, and the story would still be hopelessly murky. And you wouldn’t want to watch it. There are too many characters, too many funny names, too many plot threads to pull on – or avoid entirely, so you don’t run off on endless tangents and pull the whole narrative fabric apart.

Gilles Pontecorvo once made an exciting docudrama called The Battle of Algiers (1966), and that film is both enthralling and reasonably accurate, done in a black-and-white newsreel style that makes you forget you’re not actually seeing footage from the 1950s. However, it covers only a small episode in the saga, and doesn’t help you to understand what the Algerian Crisis was all about. It centers on 1956-57, when French army intelligence brought the hammer down on the terrorists in Algiers; didn’t balk at torture, curfews, or killing suspected bomb-makers; and pretty much destroyed the rebel/terrorist gangs in the Casbah.

A success story, yes, but it was only in Algiers (Algeria had at least two other large cities, and the white population was spread far out into the agricultural hinterlands), and that success had no lasting benefits. Up in Paris, the government didn’t want an Algeria-wide anti-terrorist operation with a half-million troops stationed from the Maghreb to the Sahara. Government ministers, Leftist chatterers (Sartre, de Beauvoir), and a growing chunk of the press and public just wanted to wash their hands of the whole ugly mess – in other words, surrender to the terrorists of the Front de libération nationale (FLN), and abandon three French départements, in a land that for over a century had officially been part of France.

For many people, this was too much. In 1958, the French army revolted, set up a paratroop staging ground on the island of Corsica, and came close to carrying out a coup d’etat in Paris. And so Charles de Gaulle, long semi-retired in his hamlet of Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, was summoned once more to center stage.

*   *   *

In his manner and the conduct of his career, de Gaulle was similar to the plot structure of The Day of the Jackal: He was always there, but usually offstage. His strength, his coherence as a personality, lay not in what he said – which in public tended to be platitudinous, mystical-sounding, even vapid – but in what he left unsaid. As a military writer and one obsessed with the history and grandeur of his country, he probably knew more than anyone else about the history and demographics of Algeria. But he also knew enough not to show off this erudition, or to offer a detailed analysis of the Algerian problem, because if he did, he would effectively be explaining why the French hold on Algeria was not feasible.

Nevertheless, he went to Algiers in June 1958, held out his arms in a big V, and from the balcony of the Governor-General’s palace, told the adoring crowds, “Je vous ai compris!” This is an ambiguous French pleasantry, meaning, “I have understood what you said, or, just maybe, I read you loud and clear.”

What de Gaulle knew, but wasn’t going to spell out, is that the popular notion of French Algeria was based on a succession of falsehoods. Then as now, there was a widespread misapprehension that the white population – that is, most of the citizens of the Republic who resided in Algeria – were literally French. Actually only about twenty percent were, and a large portion of those were from Corsica and Alsace, with the remainder mainly from the Midi; not exactly France profonde. Half or more of these Europeans, these so-called pieds noirs, were actually Spanish, Maltese, Sicilian, or Italian.

Meantime, another twenty percent of these “French” citizens of Algeria were Jewish[1] [2] – not, for the most part, Jews who had come down from Metz or Marseilles a few generations back, mind you, but mainly Sephardim who had migrated in via the Ottoman Empire during the 1500s or later. Still further back, fanciful legend has it, Jews arrived during Roman times and, before that, with trading ships of the Phoenicians, around 700 BC![2] [3]

However unlikely these ancient tales, and regardless of the fact that migrants of 700 BC could hardly have been Jews in the modern sense, they are said to have left their traces among a Berber population that still practices Hebraic customs. It is unclear what the exact ethnic breakdown of Algerian Jews was in 1960, but a Jewish census of that period gives the number of Jews as 185,000.[3] [4] That is conservative, as it would not include Jews who did not identify as such, or claimed to have no religion. But one way or another, there were many Jews in French Algeria, and they were not a monolithic population.

But whatever their origins, they had commonality in one thing that was a great benefit to them, though it left a festering sore in their relations with the surrounding Muslim population: As of October 1870, with the so-called Crémieux Decree, they were all declared to be French citizens. Presumably, the Decree was issued to foster international goodwill at a time when the government was losing the Franco-Prussian War. It probably also was intended as encouragement for Alsatian Jews to leave Prussian Elsass and find a sunny new haven on the Algerian shore of the French Republic. Perhaps there were other contributing factors: The Minister of Justice who issued the decree, Adolphe Crémieux, was himself Jewish, while the decree’s co-sponsor, Interior Minister Leon Gambetta, was a fiercely anti-Catholic republican. Whatever Crémieux and Gambetta wanted France to be, it cannot have been the France of Chateaubriand, MacMahon, and de Gaulle.

That there was often fierce antagonism between the post-Crémieux Jews of Algeria and their Muslim neighbors is obvious from newspaper reports over the next ninety years. An example is that in August 1934, riots in the Constantine district led to at least a dozen murders of Jews, including savage throat-slitting and mutilations, as well as the burning of Jewish homes.[4] [5] Such atrocities became quite typical of the massacres that Muslim terrorist bands committed against the (mainly non-Jewish) pieds noirs over the next thirty-five years. And as late as September 1961, on the eve of independence, we find Muslims rioting against Jews in Oran (nine deaths, according to Smith Hempstone of the Chicago Daily News).[5] [6]

This is not the tale we get in most accounts of Muslim-Jewish relations in Algeria, be they Jewish sources (e.g., the 1962 Commentary article footnoted below), or even such weighty accounts as Alistair Horne’s A Savage War of Peace. There we read that there was always harmony and peace between Jews and Muslims. Indeed, it was the Christians (we are told) – particularly Maltese and Spaniards – who were always stirring up anti-Jewish hatred![6] [7] The paradox here is astounding, but against the landscape of history, it is hardly unique.

*   *   *

Touching on the Jewish Question is usually a third rail for politicians, even if done sympathetically. De Gaulle was particularly circumspect in this regard. Only once, toward the end of his presidency, when he was 77, did he ever say anything critical of Jews, and even that was in the context of criticizing Israel’s behavior after the Six-Day War.

“An elite people, sure of itself and domineering,” was his deathless phrase, uttered at a press conference [8] in November 1967. That was enough to put him down in the books as a probable crypto-anti-Semite. The amazing thing, of course, is that this ponderous and deeply emotional man was able to hold it in that long.

Vive l’Algérie française!” he exhorted the crowds in Oran in June 1958, taking care not to note that Algeria really wasn’t French, and neither were the crowds. How he was going to square that knowledge with his public performance as French Algeria’s savior would occupy his mind for the next three years.

*   *   *

The Fourth Republic, with its preposterous musical-chairs governments, was finally put out of its misery in 1959, and the Fifth Republic was ushered in, with de Gaulle as its first President: a strong chief-executive role with a seven-year term. In comparison to French governments of the Third and Fourth republics, the Fifth was akin to a constitutional dictatorship. De Gaulle had the power, and the popularity, to give the army a free hand to crush the FLN. But to what end? What was the point? Cui bono?

So he temporized, considered several options – such as full integration of Algeria with France, meaning legal equality for the Muslim (Berber-Arab) majority; a modified version of this, without the right of Muslims to move to France (lest Colombey-les-Deux-Églises turn into Colombey-les-Deux-Mosques, as de Gaulle once joked); or a slow move to full independence, maybe in twenty-five years.

Then there was the obvious “partition” solution, reserving portions of Algeria as French overseas departments, while letting the FLN have everything else. While superficially this looks like the most sensible solution, it would really have been unworkable, as the European and Jewish population was widely dispersed, and the FLN would never agree to cutting up a country they believed to be entirely theirs. Furthermore, any rump portion of Algérie française would inevitably be a garrison state, a “French Israel,” surrounded by violent enemies that wanted it eradicated.

J’attends,” replied de Gaulle in 1946 when he resigned in frustration as head of the Provisional Government and went home to Colombey-les-Deux-Églises. And wait he did, and wait and wait, until finally in the fullness of time a solution appeared, the Fourth Republic began to fade out, and he was back in charge.

Something very much like this solved the Algeria problem for de Gaulle in April 1961. While he temporized and appeared to dither (“Where will he lead us, this prince of ambiguity?” asked a cabinet minister in 1960), the generals in Algeria grew infuriated and planned a putsch. Once again this was to culminate with paratroopers landing in Paris and other key points of metropolitan France (flying in, that is; not parachuting).

But word leaked out with a phone call from Algiers, the Sûreté put the government on alert, airfields were closed, and de Gaulle went on television in the morning, and then in the evening he delivered the speech of his career. “Françaises! Français! Aidez-moi!” By then the putsch was collapsing. The following year, Algeria would finally be off his hands.

There would of course be trials for the putsch leaders, and assassination attempts for the next year or two, although nothing quite as glamorous as The Day of the Jackal. And to bring us full circle, now we’ve had the backstory, and you can see the many reasons why the filmmakers left it out.


[1] [9] Alistair Horne, A Savage War of Peace (New York: Viking Books), 1978. (There have been many other editions of this hardy perennial over the years, including new prefaces by the author.) Horne gives the twenty percent figure, and the numbers in the 1962 Commentary article listed here seem to agree with that, if we assume a total of 900,000–1,000,000 non-Muslim “French citizens” prior to the early-‘60s exodus. Coincidentally, when the French first invaded Algiers in 1830, the Jewish population there was said to be twenty percent (Wikipedia).

[2] [10] Lyn Julius, “How Algeria Lost Its Jews [11],” The Times of Israel, December 19, 2012.

[3] [12] Jean Daniel, “The Jewish Future in Algeria [13],” Commentary, September 1962.

[4] [14] “Police Guard in Algiers Jewish Quarter Tripled,” wire-service dispatches appearing in Cohoes American (Cohoes, NY), August 8, 1934.

[5] [15] Smith Hempstone, “Jews of the Maghreb,” syndicated column in the New York Post, September 27, 1961.

[6] [16] Alistair Horne, A Savage War of Peace (New York: Viking Press, 1977).