In downtown Algiers, on June 4, 1958, Charles de Gaulle expressed himself clearly, as usual. The conventional wisdom has it that he was “ambiguous,” even “duplicitous.” But what he said was that the page had to be turned in Algeria: Political and civil institutions had to be reformed; there could not be two classes of citizens. He said it clearly. He said there must be educational and career opportunities for all.
Algeria, formally, was administratively and politically part of France, divided into three “departments.” In practice, it was treated like a colony in which just under a million European settlers (about a quarter of whom were of French background) had a distinctly better deal than the 10 million indigènes (as non-Europeans were called), a large majority of whom were Muslim (with some Jews and Christians). The indigènes were divided about equally between Arabs and Berbers, with both groups subdivided along tribal, sectional, and clan lines.
It was a complicated country, but by no means incomprehensible; Tocqueville had grasped the essence of the situation when he visited during the early stages of the military conquest in the 1830s and ’40s. Tocqueville, with a ruthlessness that shocks us who are used to his acute but approving analyses of the balancing acts and politics-is-always-local features of American democracy, said that the colonial enterprise was a lousy idea, but if you must do it, you either repress without pity or you assimilate systematically.
He actually favored the latter but thought the French would not like that, for all manner of reasons of racial and religious snobbery. Moreover, he said, if you export a system of rigidly centralized administration, which was already proving to be a failure in France, you could be sure it would fail in Algeria. Tocqueville predicted that it would all end badly.
It was certainly going badly in the 1950s. De Gaulle took advantage of a movement by army officers in Algeria who were frustrated by the inability of the government to end what was commonly called the Algerian War (official statements referred only to “acts of terrorism” and “measures to maintain order”). De Gaulle did not overthrow the Fourth Republic, notwithstanding his decadelong opposition to its constitution; but he did accept the invitation of the parliamentarians to form a government. Admittedly, there was something of an offer-you-can’t-refuse quality to those dramatic May days, but de Gaulle was a stickler for legality and constitutional continuity. He considered it his duty to become the last president of the council (prime minister) of what he referred to as “le régime des partis.”
After announcing that a new constitution would be drafted and submitted to the nation for approval, the 68-year-old general traveled to Algeria and made that famous—or notorious—speech, leading with a line whose meaning Frenchmen of a certain age—as well as historians—still debate: “Je vous ai compris” (“I understand you”).
He did not say what he understood—and why should he? He understood that they were upset and insecure and wanted order to be restored in the context of an Algeria associated with France. Everyone knew that the audience—mainly composed of Algerians of European extraction who were opposed to the independence demands of an insurrectionary movement called the National Liberation Front (FLN)—desired the maintenance of a French-controlled Algeria.
De Gaulle continued, in this characteristically short and pointed speech:
I know what has been going on here. I know what you are trying to do. I see that you are on the road to renovation and fraternity. And that is why I am here, because you understand that we must begin at the beginning, which means that from this day, in Algeria, there can be only one class of Frenchman, with the same rights and duties.
He referred to the dignity and civil and political rights and opportunities that had to be granted to “those who previously did not have them,” making it clear that he considered the whole segregationist structure of governance in Algeria a thing of the past. He used words that were essential to his political thinking: ensemble, fraternité, France. He did not say that French Algeria, with all that implied at that time, was viable or worth defending. But many chose to hear him say exactly that.