On a Summer's day on a quiet road in a quiet Suburb of Paris called Petit Clamart, a black Citreon DS 19 limousine speeds through a road en route to an airport. Suddenly, the peace is shattered by a wall of noise. It is the sound of bullets spewing out of an array of automatic sub-machine guns aimed at the vehicle's passenger; the French head of state, Charles de Gaulle.
Miraculously, he escapes without a scratch as does Madame De Gaulle, his son-in-law and the driver who evades the ambush despite the puncturing of two of the car's wheels.
The opening sequences of the film version of the Frederick Forsyth thriller, 'The Day of the Jackal' is largely faithful to real events in its recreation of the ambush.
The backdrop to this scenario of a hit-team consisting of serving and former members of the French military against the man who embodied the resurrection of the French nation after its humiliation by Germany in the Second World War was one of Europe's biggest political crisis in the post-war period.
DeGaulle had done an about turn and decided to hand back the French North African colony of Algeria to the Algerians after a bitterly fought war of independence -a conflict immortalised through Glilo Pontecorvo's film 'The Battle of Algiers' and the writings of Franz Fannon. What made Algeria different from other conflicts between European colonists and the indigenous seekers of independence was that the northern area of Algeria, situated on the Mediterranean, was considered to be a part of metropolitan France. As French as Provence, Burgundy or Il-de-France. It was a place where many French families had settled for generations.
Adding to the fevered level of emotion swirling around the conflict was that a French withdrawal for many would cap a series of national disasters that would shatter the collective psyche of a people who had been defeated and occupied in World War Two and more recently, been forced to evacuate from Indo-China.
France had already been brought to the brink of civil war by a rebellion by a number of generals. But while De Gaulle had faced down this challenge, he was aware that many of his countrymen still hated him for his change of policy and that a band of dissident (mainly) army officers had sworn to kill him. There were many attempts on his life with many of these plots being hatched under the aegis of the O.A.S.; Organisation de la Armee Secrete (The Secret Army Organisation).
The instigator of this particular plot, Lt. Colonel Jean Marie Bastien-Thiry, was in point of fact not an OAS member; he belonged to another even more secretive group ‘Vieil Etat-Major’, which shared the views of the O.A.S. and O.A.S. personnel were used in this plot. Bastien-Thiry was a devout Catholic who justified his plot on the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas who said that regicide was morally correct in certain circumstances.
The gang at Petit Clamart were all caught, tried and convicted. All were initially condemned to death but De Gaulle exercised the presidential prerogative of mercy by commuting all the sentences but one -that of Bastien-Thiry.
Bastien-Thiry's plea for clemency had been on the grounds that he was clinically depressed at the time and that his plan had been merely to kidnap DeGaulle and have him tried at a secret location.
DeGaulle had given clemency to the rebellious generals and others who had committed treason but decided that Bastien-Thiry should die because he placed himself at a safe distance from the mayhem of bullets (he was the look-out who waved a newspaper in order to alert the gunmen of the arrival of De Gaulle's car); his operation had also endangered Madame De Gaulle and some innocent bystanders.
In upholding the death sentence, De Gaulle knew that he would be making a martyr of Bastien-Thiry but choose him above the generals who in his words were "kicking footballs" around the precincts of a French penitentiary.
He was executed by firing squad in March of the following year at a military barracks on the outskirts of Paris, the Fort D'Ivry.
Many of those who were imprisoned for plotting his death and the overthrow of the state did not serve lengthy sentences -a prudent policy in terms of setting the ground for future national reconciliation.
© Adeyinka Makinde (2008)
Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England