Rafe McGregor is senior lecturer in criminology at Edge Hill University, where he researches political violence, media and culture, and policing. He is the author of A Criminology of Narrative Fiction (2021) and Narrative Justice (2018) and has published in criminology, philosophy, politics, literature, and education journals.
The political unrest that accompanied Joe Biden’s succession to the US Presidency earlier this month reminded me of the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa from 1991 to 1992, during which I was an undergraduate at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. In both cases, there was a threat – or at least a perceived threat – of a white supremacist coup d’état and a concern that it would either be led or supported by elements of the armed forces. In SA, State President F.W. de Klerk countered the threat by dismissing the most reactionary South African Defence Force and South African Police generals and in the US, the massive Homeland Security apparatus seems to belatedly be taking white supremacist extremism seriously. The question remains, however, as to what particular challenges a popular and well-organised white supremacist insurgency might raise. There is a relatively recent historical example that has received very little attention in the Anglosphere, the OAS’ insurgency in Algeria and France from 1961 to 1963.
The Organisation armée secrete (OAS) was formed by General Raoul Salan in Madrid in December 1960 from exiled pied-noirs (white settlers in Algeria) and renegade French military officers who had taken part in the failed Algiers Putsch of May 1958. The OAS was reinforced after the failed General’s Putsch of April 1961, with a Madrid, Algerian, and Metropolitan branch, each of which included an Organisation-Renseignements-Opérations (ORO) section. The Madrid OAS proved ineffectual, but the Algerian and Metropolitan OROs launched insurgencies in May. The de facto leader of the Algerian ORO was Lieutenant Roger Degueldre, formerly of 1er REP (Régiments Étrangers de Parachutistes), who led the Delta Commandos, a unit of 200 operators divided into cells of half a dozen across Algiers and Oran. The Metropolitan ORO was commanded by Captain Jean-Marie Curutchet, formerly of 14e RCP (Régiments de Parachutistes Coloniaux), whose mission was the murder of President Charles De Gaulle. The first attempt on De Gaulle’s life was an ambush on Route Nationale 19 on 8 September. De Gaulle escaped unscathed, the police made their first arrest within the hour, discovered the identities of the entire ORO cell that night, and arrested General Vanuxem, head of the Metropolitan OAS, the next morning. The Metropolitan OAS nonetheless went on the offensive, taking advantage of a reinvigorated Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) insurgency in Paris and the tensions caused by the Paris police’s massacre of between 40 and 300 Muslims on 17 October. At this point, the OAS enjoyed the support of 80 deputies in France’s National Assembly and Degueldre’s Deltas had defeated both the police and the FLN in Algiers, including an elite counter-insurgency (COIN) unit of 80 barbouzes (a derogatory term for undercover police agents).
Both branches of the ORO intensified their violence in January 1962, but this proved counterproductive for the Metropolitan branch when a four-year-old girl was maimed by a bomb blast in Paris on 8 February. There was a public demonstration against the OAS that night and the police responded with characteristic excess, killing eight people. Five days later hundreds of thousands of Parisians turned out for the funerals in a peaceful protest against both the police and the OAS. The ceasefire between France and the FLN on 18 March turned the three-way struggle between France, the OAS, and the FLN into a two-way struggle that the OAS could never win. Salan’s renaming of the organisation as the Conseil National de la Résistance (CNR) had little impact: both he and Degueldre were under arrest by the end of April and Algerian operations had ceased by the end of June. The Metropolitan CNR remained determined to kill De Gaulle and an ORO cell led by Lieutenant Colonel Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiéry, an engineer in France’s Air Ministry, ambushed his motorcade in Paris on 22 August. De Gaulle and his wife survived a hail of nearly 200 bullets, fourteen of which hit their car, without injury and Bastien-Thiéry was arrested in January 1963. He was tried in February and became the last French citizen to be executed by firing squad on 10 March. While he was on trial, the police prevented a third assassination attempt, by a sniper, which seems to have been the basis of Frederick Forsyth’s bestselling thriller, The Day of the Jackal (published in 1971). CNR bombs continued to disturb life in Paris during 1963, tailing off until the last detonation on 11 July. By the end of the year, however, all but three of the CNR’s leadership were in custody.
From May 1961 to May 1963 the OAS/CNR was responsible for 12000 bomb detonations, 2000 attacks, and 1400 deaths on both sides of the Mediterranean. There are three features of its defeat that have a bearing on white supremacist insurgencies more generally. First, traditional COIN tactics had little effect. Most if not all of the ORO operators had military training and combat experience, in consequence of which they were able to outmanoeuvre and outgun the barbouzes. Second, in common with almost all insurgencies, the loss of public support proved crucial. Third, the question of the military’s position was pivotal. Salan erred by assassinating an army officer in Algiers in September 1961 and the military made an irreversible commitment to France by capturing the Algerian OAS leadership in Oran in March 1962. In the space of two months, both the public and the military thus made decisive turns against the OAS. The sympathy of the military and the police is one of the factors that makes a potential white supremacist insurgency particularly dangerous. The lessons from France’s failure and SA’s success in preventing insurgencies suggest that the purging of sympathisers, particularly those of staff rank, is an effective COIN tactic. As a tactic, it is most effectively deployed at the planning rather than the operational stage, before an insurgency has the opportunity to gain the support of the military and the public, a measure the US has traditionally been reluctant to take.
Dr Rafe McGregor, Edge Hill University
Images: Courtesy of author