Algiers putsch of 1961

The Algiers putsch (Putsch d'Alger or Coup d'État d'Alger), also known as the Generals' putsch (Putsch des Généraux), took place from the afternoon of 21 April to the 26 April 1961 in the midst of the Algerian War (1954–1962). It was a failed coup d'état attempt organized by four retired French army generals: Maurice Challe (former commander of the French Algeria corps), Edmond Jouhaud, André Zeller and Raoul Salan in French Algeria, to overthrow president Charles de Gaulle and establish an anti-communist military junta.

The putschists were opposed to the secret negotiations that French Prime Minister Michel Debré's government had started with the secessionist National Liberation Front (FLN). General Raoul Salan argued that he joined the coup without concerning himself with its technical planning, however it has always been considered a four-man coup d'état, as de Gaulle famously put it: "un quarteron de généraux en retraite" (a quartet of retired generals).

The coup was to come in two phases: first, an assertion of control in French Algeria's major cities Algiers, Oran and Constantine followed by the seizure of Paris. The metropolitan operation would be led by Colonel Antoine Argoud, with French paratroopers descending on strategic airfields. The commanders in Oran and Constantine, however, refused to follow Challe's demand that they join the coup. At the same time, information about the metropolitan phase came to Prime Minister Debré's attention through the intelligence service.

On April 22, all flights and landings were forbidden in Parisian airfields, and an order was given to the army to resist the coup "by all means". The following day, President Charles de Gaulle made a famous speech on TV, dressed with his 1940s-vintage general's uniform (he was 71 and retired from the army) ordering the French people and army to help him.


The majority of the French people had voted in favor of French Algeria's self determination during the disputed January 8, 1961 referendum organized in metropolitan France. French citizens living abroad (or serving abroad in the military) were allowed to vote like the metropolitan citizens, although non-citizens in Algeria itself (i.e., the vast majority of the Muslim residents) did not participate in the election.

Michel Debré's government started secret negotiations with the GPRA (Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic), the political arm of the FLN. On 25 January 1961 Colonel Antoine Argoud visited with Premier Debré and threatened him with a coup directed by a "colonels' junta"; the French Army was in no way disposed to let the French Algerian départements become independent.


On 22 April 1961, retired generals Raoul Salan, André Zeller, Maurice Challe and Edmond Jouhaud, helped by colonels Antoine Argoud, Jean Gardes, Joseph Ortiz and Jean-Jacques Susini (who would form the OAS terrorist group), took control of Algiers. General Challe criticised what he saw as the government's treason and lies toward French Algeria colonists and loyalist Muslims who trusted it, and stated that "the command reserves its right to extend its actions to the metropole and to reconstitute a constitutional and republican order seriously compromised by a government which illegally burst onto the eyes of the nation During the night, the 1st Foreign Parachute Regiment (1e REP), composed of a thousand men (3% of the military present in Algeria) and headed by Hélie de Saint Marc took control of all of Algiers' strategic points in three hours.

The head of the Parisian police, Maurice Papon, and the director of the Sûreté nationale, formed a crisis cell in a room of the Comédie-Française, where Charles de Gaulle was attending a presentation of Racine's Britannicus. The president was informed during the entracte of the coup by Jacques Foccart, his general secretary to African and Malagasy Affairs and closest collaborator, in charge of covert operations.

Algiers' population was awakened on 22 April at 7am to a message read on the radio: "The army has taken control of Algeria and of the Sahara". The three rebel generals, Challe, Jouhaud and Zeller, had the government's general delegate arrested, as well as Jean Morin, National Minister of Public Transport, Robert Buron, who was visiting, and several civil and military personages. Several regiments put themselves under the command of the insurrectionary generals.

General Jacques Faure, six other officers and several civilians were simultaneously arrested in Paris. At 5pm, during the ministers' council, Charles de Gaulle declared: "Gentlemen, what is serious about this affair, is that it isn't serious". He then proclaimed a state of emergency in Algeria, while left wing parties, trade union and the Ligue des droits de l'homme (LDH, Human Rights League) called to demonstrate against the military's coup d'état.

The following day, on Sunday 23 April, General Salan arrived from Spain and refused to arm civilian activists. At 8pm, General de Gaulle appeared in his uniform on TV, calling on French military personnel and civilians, in the metropole or in Algeria, to oppose the putsch:

"An insurrectionary power has established itself in Algeria by a military pronunciamento... This power has an appearance: a quartet of retired generals (un quarteron de généraux en retraite). It has a reality: a group of officers, partisan, ambitious and fanatic. This group and this quartet possess an expeditive and limited savoir faire. But they see and understand the Nation and the world only deformed through their frenzy. Their enterprise lead directly towards a national disaster … I forbid any Frenchman, and, first of all, any soldier, to execute any single one of their orders…. Before the misfortune which hangs over the fatherland and the threat on the Republic, having taken advise from the Constitutional Council, the Premier ministre, the president of the Senate, the president of the National Assembly, I have decided to put in cause article 16 of the Constitution [on the state of emergency and full special powers given to the head of state in case of a crisis]. Starting from this day, I will take, directly if needs arise, the measures which seems to me demanded by circumstances… Frenchwomen, Frenchmen! Help me!

De Gaulle's call was heard on the radio by the conscript soldiers, who refused en masse to follow the professional soldiers' call for insurgency. Trade unions decided for the next day a one hour general strike against the putsch. The few troops which had followed the generals progressively surrendered. General Challe also gave himself up to the authorities on 26 April, and was immediately transferred to the metropole. The putsch had been successfully opposed, but the article 16 on full and extraordinary powers given to de Gaulle was maintained for five months.

Trials and amnesty

A military court condemned Challe and André Zeller to fifteen years of prison. However, they were amnestied and reintegrated into their military dignity five years later. Raoul Salan and Jouhaud escaped. Salan was condemned in absentia to death penalty (later changed in life sentence) as well as Jouhaud. Salan and others later founded the OAS far right terrorist group which attempted to disrupt the April 1962 peace Evian Accords. But all penal sentences were amnestied by a July 1968 act. Putschist generals still alive in November 1982 were reintegrated into the Army by another amnesty law: Raoul Salan, Edmond Jouhaud, and six other generals benefitted from this law.

Notes and references


  • Pierre Abramovici and Gabriel Périès, La Grande Manipulation, éd. Hachette, 2006
  • Porch, Douglas. The French Foreign Legion. New York: Harper Collins, 1991. ISBN 978-0-06-092308-2
  • General Maurice Challe protégé of CIA director Allen Dulles, plot against De Gaulle

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