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1958-1965 - Decolonization and the Fifth Republic

Rioting in Algiers by the French population of Algeria on 13 May 1958 led to the fall of the last government of the Fourth Republic, led by Pierre Pflimlin. General de Gaulle was called by President René Coty to lead the government. De Gaulle’s supreme achievements after his return to power in 1958 was the resolution of both the future of Algeria and the fate of the colonial empire. In 1958 he offered the Africans a clear choice. They could decide in favor of independence and a privileged place within the French community, with the continuation of economic and military assistance, or in favor of unfettered independence and the abrupt breaking of all links. Only Sekou Touré of Guinea chose to sever the bonds with France. The rest remained within the French Union.

De Gaulle initiated the drafting of a new Constitution, which was to lay down the future modus operandi of the French institutions. On 28 September 1958, the Constitution of the Fifth Republic was adopted by referendum. It gave the President of the Republic much broader authority. On 21 December 1958, de Gaulle was elected President by a college of deputies, senators and local elected representatives.

In the mid to late 19th century, the European powers colonized much of Africa and Southeast Asia. During the decades of imperialism, the industrializing powers of Europe viewed the African and Asian continents as reservoirs of raw materials, labor, and territory for future settlement. In most cases, however, significant development and European settlement in these colonies was sporadic. However, the colonies were exploited, sometimes brutally, for natural and labor resources, and sometimes even for military conscripts. In addition, the introduction of colonial rule drew arbitrary natural boundaries where none had existed before, dividing ethnic and linguistic groups and natural features, and laying the foundation for the creation of numerous states lacking geographic, linguistic, ethnic, or political affinity.

During World War II Japan, itself a significant imperial power, drove the European powers out of Asia. After the Japanese surrender in 1945, local nationalist movements in the former Asian colonies campaigned for independence rather than a return to European colonial rule. In many cases, as in Indonesia and French Indochina, these nationalists had been guerrillas fighting the Japanese after European surrenders, or were former members of colonial military establishments.

Nearly all of the European countries believed that after their recovery from World War II their colonies would finally provide the combination of raw materials and protected markets for finished goods that would cement the colonies to Europe. Whether or not this was the case, the alternative of allowing the colonies to slip away, perhaps into the American or Soviet economic sphere, was unappealing to every European government interested in postwar stability. The Cold War only served to complicate the situation, as support for decolonization was offset by concerns over communist expansion and Soviet strategic ambitions in Europe. Several of the NATO allies asserted that their colonial possessions provided them with economic and military strength that would otherwise be lost to the alliance.

Events such as the the Vietnamese war against France (1945-54) served to reinforce such fears, even if new governments did not directly link themselves to the Soviet Union. Thus, France [and the United States] used aid packages, technical assistance and sometimes even military intervention to encourage newly independent nations in the Third World to adopt governments that aligned with the West. The Soviet Union deployed similar tactics in an effort to encourage new nations to join the communist bloc, and attempted to convince newly decolonized countries that communism was an intrinsically non-imperialist economic and political ideology. Many of the new nations resisted the pressure to be drawn into the Cold War, joined in the "nonaligned movement," which formed after the Bandung conference of 1955, and focused on internal development.

From 1960 onwards, the countries of French Africa gained independence, whilst maintaining special links with France, but the thorniest problem inherited from the Fourth Republic was the continuing war in Algeria. Serious disturbances both in mainland France and in Algeria, and a putsch by generals in Algiers on 22 April 1961, led to an acceleration of the negotiations with the provisional government of the Algerian Republic which culminated in the Evian agreements, overwhelmingly approved by referendum on 8 April 1962. Algeria gained independence and a million French inhabitants had to return to mainland France and a new life.

The newly independent nations that emerged in the 1950s and the 1960s became an important factor in changing the balance of power within the United Nations. In 1946, there were 35 member states in the United Nations; as the newly independent nations of the "third world" joined the organization, by 1970 membership had swelled to 127. These new member states had a few characteristics in common; they were non-white, with developing economies, facing internal problems that were the result of their colonial past, which sometimes put them at odds with European countries and made them suspicious of European-style governmental structures, political ideas, and economic institutions.

The creation of so many new countries, some of which occupied strategic locations, others of which possessed significant natural resources, and most of which were desperately poor, altered the composition of the United Nations and political complexity of every region of the globe. These countries also became vocal advocates of continuing decolonization, with the result that the UN Assembly was often ahead of the Security Council on issues of self-governance and decolonization. The new nations pushed the UN toward accepting resolutions for independence for colonial states and creating a special committee on colonialism, demonstrating that even though some nations continued to struggle for independence, in the eyes of the international community, the colonial era was ending.

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Page last modified: 03-04-2012 19:45:20 ZULU