I have just been reading Patrice Gélinet’s excellent recently published book on the Algerian War (La Guerre d’Algérie (published by Acropole, April 2016). It’s a pity that it has not been translated into English.
Apart from being full of testimonies of this appalling conflict, it raises some very interesting questions about the nature of President de Gaulle’s leadership and integrity.
A great deal is said today about the importance of ‘integrity’ and ‘transparency’ in leaders, especially when introducing change. Indeed I have written training courses that touch on this during my time at Acas! However, perhaps there are times when we expect too much of these qualities from our leaders. Maybe there are times when poorly timed displays of transparency could be deadly?
The Algerian War (1954-62) gives an interesting case study on managing change and the role, or not, of integrity in leadership. Brexit is, to be frank, a walk in the park compared to what successive French leaders had to deal with in Algeria. The war saw France bogged down in a war that not only cost over a million lives but dominated French politics, cost up to 18% of French GDP while it was being fought, and eventually killed off the Fourth Republic. It led to the return of de Gaulle to power and the foundation of the Fifth Republic and gave him greater powers than nearly any other elected Head of State in the world.
The nature of his leadership divided France at the time, with many of the French settlers in Algeria feeling lied to and betrayed by him. Many others in France, however, supported de Gaulle and believed his policies of withdrawing from Algeria were the only way that France could get out of that viper’s nest and recover its position on the world stage, where colonies were seen as being a thing of the past.
The Fourth Republic is often portrayed as a hopeless muddle of constantly changing governments rather like Italy. However, considerable efforts were made by successive French leaders after the war started to come to a rapid settlement with the Algerian nationalist movement, especially under the presidency of Guy Mollet.
The French colonists were deeply suspicious of Paris and the metropolitan authorities, and elements of the army in Algeria were openly disloyal. Mollet’s government negotiated secretly with the Algerian nationalists and actually came to an agreement with them that would have ended the war, spared all those lives, and even guaranteed a place for the French settlers in the future Algeria.
In 1956, the French army was smarting from successive defeats in Indochina and the Suez crisis. In fact, they had not had a military victory for over thirty years. Elements of the army got wind of a flight the Algerian nationalists were to take from Morocco to Tunisia and managed to get the French airforce to force the plane to land in Algeria, imprisoning them. This killed any hopes of an end to the war and sealed the end of French settlement in Algeria.
By 1958, France was winning the war militarily, but the French public was sick of the casualties and bad press France was receiving for its atrocities and torturing of Muslim prisoners. As it became increasingly clear to the settlers in Algeria that Paris wanted out, serious riots broke out in Algiers. Protesters occupied the seat of government in Algiers, ransacking the offices and throwing typewriters out of the windows. Yet another government fell. This was de Gaulle’s chance to return to power.
The irony is that the more switched-on of the settlers realised that de Gaulle was no supporter of their cause, as Gélinet describes. But what they didn’t realise was how clever a politician he was. He gave his famous speech in June 1958 in Algiers to thousands of settlers, using highly ambiguous words that a democratically elected Head of State would be unlikely to get away with today,
I understand you. I know what has happened here.
…and the crowd went wild, thinking that French Algeria had been saved. But understanding someone is not, of course, the same as agreeing with them, and that was their fatal mistake.
De Gaulle explained later what was going on in his mind when he said these consciously ambiguous words, “I uttered some words (to the crowd) that seemed spontaneous, but were really calculated to enthuse them without saying more than I intended to say”
To be fair to de Gaulle he probably didn’t have much choice. He probably would have got assassinated if he had said what he really thought. Also, as he himself says in his memoirs, he had been on record since 1955 saying that French domination in North Africa had to be replaced by ‘association’.
De Gaulle went on to fight in Algeria for another four years, determined to leave the country in a position of strength. Huge sums of money were spent in his famous ‘Constantine Plan’ on building roads, schools, hospitals and housing to improve the lot of Muslim Algerians. But in the end, a peace agreement was reached that was remarkably similar to the one agreed in 1956, and nearly all 1.5 million settlers fled the country.
My own view is that de Gaulle was never going to able to preserve a French presence in Algeria, and to his credit, he knew that. Yes, he was economic at best with his words when he came to power. But the real blame for the disastrous end of the French presence in Algeria and the chaotic collapse and loss of life in the war was not his. By keeping his cards close to his chest in 1958, there was at least a chance that things could have turned out much better both for France and Algeria. Sometimes perhaps we not only need leaders who show integrity and transparency, we also need them to be both lucky and wise.