French citizens and soldiers nonviolently defend against Algerian putsch, 1961

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Timing
Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
Although the coup began the night of April 21, it is not clear if nonviolent resistance began sooner than the morning of April 22
April 22,
1961
to
April 25,
1961
Location and Goals
Country: 
France
Country: 
Algeria
Location City/State/Province: 
Paris and Algiers
Location Description: 
Throughout Algeria and France
Goals: 
To prevent the coup in the Algerian colony from remaining in power and to prevent the coup from invading France
 

At the beginning of April 1961, after nearly seven years of war in Algeria as France tried to maintain its control there, French President Charles de Gaulle announced that he would begin negotiations with the Algerian nationalists and soon relinquish control of the colony. At the time France had approximately 500,000 soldiers stationed in Algeria and very few remaining at home. Several of the generals in Algeria, however, did not want to concede to the Algerian nationalists.

On the night of Friday April 21, 1961, four generals led a single paratroop regiment in a coup in Algeria. These rebel forces took over Algiers, the capital of Algeria, arresting several generals still loyal to the French government. The putschists overtook the legal, civil government in Algeria, as well as all radio stations and newspapers in the colony. They met very little resistance, partly because at first many soldiers remained unsure of whom to support and partly because those troops and generals that remained loyal to France did not want to begin a civil war in the midst of an already long war in Algeria. In addition, as the coup leaders took over the government and communications in Algeria, they announced that they would destroy any attempted resistance against them. It was unclear both to the government in France and to the citizens and soldiers in Algeria how much support the coup had. Furthermore, the French government began to fear that the coup would move to the French mainland and attempt to take over the government there as well.

Over the weekend political parties and trade unions in France held mass meetings and announced a one-hour protest general strike for Monday April 24 in order to demonstrate their power of resistance if the coup did move to France. That Sunday evening, President de Gaulle broadcast a speech to all of France calling on citizens and soldiers to resist the coup by “all means,” which would include violence. Nonetheless, the resistance that followed was almost completely nonviolent. Later that evening French Prime Minister Michel Debré echoed de Gaulle’s request and announced the possibility of an air invasion from Algeria. He shut down all airports and urged citizens to rush to the airfields if they heard the sirens announcing an invasion. He hoped these civilians could persuade the incoming soldiers to remain loyal to the French government.

Hundreds of people went to the airfields and prepared vehicles to block the runways. In Algeria, soldiers and other citizens had heard de Gaulle’s speech for resistance through transistor radios. People also began to duplicate the speech in leaflets and distribute them throughout the colony.

While 10 million workers in France took part in the one-hour symbolic general strike on Monday afternoon, soldiers and civil servants in Algeria were also resisting the coup. Pilots in the military took more than half of the transport and fighter planes out of Algeria so they could not be used for an invasion of France. Other pilots feigned mechanical failures in planes so they could not be flown. While many generals did not openly support either the rebel forces or the French government, most loyal conscripts simply remained in their barracks throughout the attempted coup, disobeying orders from the putschists. Other soldiers purposefully lost orders and documents or deliberately slowed communication and transport systems. Soldiers set up committees to govern their regiments in place of their generals. At least one soldier distributed a petition pledging loyalty to the French government. Civil servants who remained loyal to the civil government in Algeria either stayed away from work to demonstrate their resistance or, if they did go into work, civil servants hid documents and files.

In France, the government set up guards at public buildings (most likely armed) and arrested right-wing supporters—the groups that would have been most likely to favor the putschists. The government also began a blockade of supplies being shipped into Algeria. On the night of the 24th, the government determined that troops who had been stationed in West Germany would remain loyal to France. The next morning the government ordered these troops to return to the country in order to defend against the possible coup. However, by this time the coup in Algeria was already failing due to the resistance effort there.

As the people’s resistance to the coup continued to grow on Tuesday April 25, the police force in Algeria, which had originally supported the rebels, switched its loyalty back to the civilian government. Although de Gaulle broadcast another speech that evening calling for loyal troops to fire on the rebel troops, none did. Whenever the two groups came close to a clash, the loyal troops would often retreat in order to prevent violence within the French army and a possible civil war. Throughout the entire campaign there was no known violence against the rebel troops despite de Gaulle’s request for “all means” of resistance. Throughout the campaign the rebel troops had killed at least 3 people and injured several more.

On the night of April 25 the four generals that had led the coup fled from Algeria and the rebel troops withdrew from their occupation of Algiers. The putsch had failed, largely due to the nonviolent resistance of citizens, soldiers, and civil servants both in Algeria and France.

Research Notes
Influences: 

Not Known

Sources: 
Kelly, George Armstrong. Lost Soldiers: The French Army and Empire in Crisis 1947-1962. Cambridge: MIT press, 1965.

Sharp, Gene. Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential. Boston: Extending Horizons Books, 2005.

Roberts, Adam. "Civil Resistance to Military Coups." in Journal of Peace Research, vol. 12 no. 1 (1975). pp. 19-36

Henissart, Paul. Wolves in the City: The Death of French Algeria. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970.

Additional Notes: 
This campaign was originally researched by Maurice Weeks at the beginning of this project and rewritten by Max Rennebohm (03/04/2011)
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Max Rennebohm 03/04/2011