The May 1958 crisis (or Algiers putsch or the coup of 13 May) was a political crisis in France during the turmoil of the Algerian War of Independence (1954–62) which led to the return of Charles de Gaulle to political responsibilities after a twelve-year absence. It started as a coup attempt led at Algiers on 13 May 1958 by a coalition headed by Algiers deputy and reserve airborne officer Pierre Lagaillarde, French Generals Raoul Salan, Edmond Jouhaud, Jean Gracieux, and Jacques Massu, and by Admiral Philippe Auboyneau, commander of the Mediterranean fleet. The putsch was supported by former Algerian Governor General Jacques Soustelle and his activist allies.
Carried out in the context of the Algerian War (1954–62), the putsch had as its aim to oppose the formation of Pierre Pflimlin's new government and to impose a change of policies in favor of the right-wing partisans of French Algeria. The crisis marked the return of Charles de Gaulle to political affairs after a decade of absence, and set in motion the events which would lead to the establishment of the Fifth Republic.
Recurrent cabinet crises focused attention on the inherent instability of the Fourth Republic and increased the misgivings of the army and of the colonists that the security of Algeria (then a part of France as an overseas department) was being undermined by party politics. Army commanders chafed at what they took to be inadequate and incompetent government support of military efforts to end the rebellion. The feeling was widespread that another debacle like that of Indochina in 1954 was in the offing and that the government would order another precipitated pullout and sacrifice French honor to political expediency. The result was the return of Charles de Gaulle.
After his tour as governor general, Jacques Soustelle had returned to France to organize support for de Gaulle's return to power, while retaining close ties to the army and the settlers. By early 1958, he had organized a coup d'état, bringing together dissident army officers and colonial officials with sympathetic Gaullists. An army junta under General Jacques Massu seized power in Algiers on the night of 13 May. General Salan assumed leadership of a Committee of Public Safety formed to replace the civil authority and pressed the junta's demands that de Gaulle be named by French president René Coty to head a government of national union invested with extraordinary powers to prevent the "abandonment of Algeria." Salan announced on radio that the Army had “provisionally taken over responsibility for the destiny of French Algeria”. Under the pressure of Massu, Salan declared Vive de Gaulle! from the balcony of the Algiers Government-General building on 15 May. De Gaulle answered two days later that he was ready to “assume the powers of the Republic”. Many worried as they saw this answer as support for the army.
At a 19 May press conference, de Gaulle asserted again that he was at the disposal of the country. When a journalist expressed the concerns of some who feared that he would violate civil liberties, de Gaulle retorted vehemently:
Have I ever done that? Quite the opposite, I have reestablished them when they had disappeared. Who honestly believes that, at age 67, I would start a career as a dictator?
On 24 May, French paratroopers from the Algerian corps landed on Corsica by aircraft, taking the French island in a bloodless action called "Opération Corse." Subsequently, preparations were made in Algeria for "Operation Resurrection," which had as objectives the seizure of Paris and the removal of the French government, through the use of paratroopers and armoured forces based at Rambouillet. "Operation Resurrection" was to be implemented if one of three scenarios occurred: if de Gaulle was not approved as leader of France by Parliament, if de Gaulle asked for military assistance to take power, or if it seemed that communist forces were making any move to take power in France.
Political leaders on many sides agreed to support the General's return to power with the notable exceptions of François Mitterrand, who was a minister in Guy Mollet's Socialist government, Pierre Mendès-France (a Young Turk of the Radical-Socialist Party, former Prime Minister), Alain Savary (also a member of the French Section of the Workers' International (SFIO)), and the Communist Party. The far-left philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, a noted atheist, said, “I would rather vote for God.” Mendès-France and Savary, opposed to their respective parties' support of de Gaulle, would form together, in 1960, the Parti socialiste autonome (PSA, Socialist Autonomous Party), ancestor of the Parti socialiste unifié (PSU, Unified Socialist Party).
On 29 May the French President, René Coty told parliament that the nation was on the brink of civil war, so he was 'turning towards the most illustrious of Frenchmen, towards the man who, in the darkest years of our history, was our chief for the reconquest of freedom and who refused dictatorship in order to re-establish the Republic. I ask General de Gaulle to confer with the head of state and to examine with him what, in the framework of Republican legality, is necessary for the immediate formation of a government of national safety and what can be done, in a fairly short time, for a deep reform of our institutions." De Gaulle accepted Coty's proposal under the precondition that a new constitution would be introduced creating a powerful presidency in which a sole executive, the first of which was to be himself, ruled for seven-year periods. Another condition was that he be granted extraordinary powers for a period of six months.
His newly formed cabinet was approved by the National Assembly on 1 June 1958, by 329 votes against 224, while he was granted the power to govern by ordinances for a six-month period as well as the task to draft a new Constitution.
The May 1958 crisis indicated that the Fourth Republic by 1958 no longer had any support from the French army in Algeria, and was at its mercy even in civilian political matters. This decisive shift in the balance of power in civil-military relations in France in 1958 and the threat of force was the main immediate factor in the return of de Gaulle to power in France.
De Gaulle blamed the institutions of the Fourth Republic for France's political weakness — a Gaullist reading still popular today. As he commissioned the new constitution and was responsible for its overall framework, de Gaulle is sometimes described as the author of the constitution, although it was effectively drafted during the summer of 1958 by the Gaullist Michel Debré. The draft tightly espoused the 1946 speech of Bayeux's propositions, leading to a strong executive and to a rather presidential regime — the President being granted the responsibility of governing the Council of Ministers, as well as to the adoption of article 16, granting "extraordinary powers" to the president if a state of emergency was proclaimed, and of bicameralism.
Although most politicians supported de Gaulle, François Mitterrand, who opposed the new Constitution, famously denounced "a permanent coup d'état" in 1964. On 28 September 1958, a referendum took place and 79.2% of those who voted supported the new constitution and the creation of the Fifth Republic. The colonies (Algeria was officially three departments of France, not a colony) were given the choice between immediate independence and the new constitution. All colonies voted for the new constitution and the replacement of the French Union by the French Community, except Guinea, which thus became the first French African colony to gain independence, at the cost of the immediate cessation of all French assistance.
De Gaulle was elected President of the French Republic and of the African and Malagasy Community on 21 December 1958 by indirect suffrage. He was invested on 8 January 1959. In the meanwhile, de Gaulle had met the German chancellor Konrad Adenauer on 14 September 1958; had sent a memorandum to US President Dwight D. Eisenhower on 17 September 1958, recalling his will of national independence; he also took financial measures on 27 December 1958 to reduce the state deficit, and, in Algeria, called for the "peace of the brave" (paix des braves) in October 1958.