Three months after a new French constitution was approved, Charles de Gaulle is elected the first president of the Fifth Republic by a sweeping majority of French voters. The previous June, France’s World War II hero was called out of retirement to lead the country when a military and civilian revolt in Algeria threatened France’s stability.
A veteran of World War I, de Gaulle unsuccessfully petitioned his country to modernize its armed forces in the years before the outbreak of World War II. After French Premier Henri Pétain signed an armistice with Nazi Germany in June 1940, de Gaulle fled to London, where he organized the Free French forces and rallied French colonies to the Allied cause. His forces fought successfully in North Africa, and in June 1944 he was named head of the French government in exile.
On August 26, following the Allied invasion of France, de Gaulle entered Paris in triumph. In November, he was unanimously elected provisional president of France. He resigned two years later, however, claiming he lacked sufficient governing power. In 1947, he formed a new political party that had only moderate electoral success, and in 1953 he left politics.
In 1958, however, a revolt by French colonists in Algeria led to a severe political crisis in France, and de Gaulle agreed to head a new emergency government. Considered the only leader of sufficient strength and stature to deal with the perilous situation, he was made the virtual dictator of France, with power to rule by decree for six months. A new constitution of his design was approved in a national referendum in September, and on December 21 he was elected president of the Fifth Republic.
During the next decade, President de Gaulle granted independence to Algeria and attempted to restore France to its former international stature by withdrawing from the U.S.-dominated NATO alliance and promoting the development of French atomic weapons. Student demonstrations and workers’ strikes in 1968 eroded his popular support, and in 1969 his proposals for constitutional reform were defeated in a national vote. On April 28, 1969, Charles de Gaulle, at 79 years old, retired permanently.