Given the ubiquitous nature of the name today – on airports and train stations, avenues and public buildings – it may be assumed that Charles de Gaulle was universally popular in France. And yet during his time as President, he was the target of over 30 assassination attempts. Most schemes barely got off the drawing board, but one came within centimetres of success. Finding myself close by to the scene of that attempt, I went in search of those significant centimetres.
The date is August 22 1962, the place a quiet Paris suburb called Petit Clamart. Charles de Gaulle and his wife Yvonne have left Paris and are heading to the military aerodrome in Villacoublay where a helicopter is waiting to take them to Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, their country home.
At around 8pm, the convoy – a first car with security officers, a second car with the President and his wife, and two police officers on motorbikes – arrives in Petit Clamart, unaware that a commando troop of 12 men is lying in wait for them. As the convoy reaches the crossroads between the RN 306, on which they are travelling, and the rue Charles Debry and rue des Bois, the 12 men, in three different spots, fire off a volley of 187 bullets. Although de Gaulle’s car is hit 14 times, miraculously no-one is injured.
Some say he was saved by his car – the iconic Citroen DS 19 – which was able to speed away from the scene despite having its two front tires blown out. Others say he was lucky – one bullet apparently passed behind his head and in front of his wife’s. For de Gaulle though, his survival resulted simply from the fact that the men were ‘bad shots’.
The entire event was later recreated – with impressive accuracy – at the beginning of the film ‘The Day of the Jackal’.
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The attempt, known as the opération Charlotte Corday (named after another famous assassin) was one of several organised by the OAS (Organisation de l'armée secrete), a dissident far-right paramilitary organisation created during the Algerian War (1954–62). Although no-one was killed this time, other bombings and shootings cost the lives of dozens of people in France during this period.
The year after the attempt, its leader, the lieutenant colonel Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry, was executed for his role, the last person to be sentenced to death by a military court and killed by firing squad in France. The other participants
were rounded up (a couple managed to escape) and sentenced either to death or long stretches in prison. All though were free within a few years though after receiving a presidential pardon.
What remains of this incident? The locations of significant events often seem to assume a particular atmosphere, even if it is only in our minds, but this spot has little to distinguish it from other busy roads around Paris. The municipal authorities have though erected a sign here, telling the story of the attempt, and promote the location as part of a walking tour around the town.
The street provides the anonymity required for such an attempt, and remains simply a place of passage today. The only buildings are utilities - petrol stations, pizza takeaways - places people stop for a purpose. Nobody wonders what anyone else is doing. Nobody wondered why I was taking photos here.
One thing I did note was that this stretch of the road has been renamed. In 1962, at the time of the incident, it was the Avenue de la Liberation. Today - and judging by the state of the sign, since a good time already - it is the Avenue du Charles de Gaulle. With every town and city in France seemingly having an Avenue du Charles de Gaulle though, this renaming is not necesarilly connected to the event that happened here!
Reading newspaper accounts of the time and watching contemporary news reports, it is clear that the sequence of events recreated in the film 'The Day of the Jackal' is accurate, right down to Bastien-Thiry agitating his newspaper to give the signal to fire. This accuracy surely stems from the fact that the book's author, Frederick Forsyth, was a young journalist at the time and reported from the scene for Reuters.
The location chosen for the film is also superficially the same, but clearly not the exact spot. If anyone does know where this sequence was filmed, please let me know!
The film featured - spoiler alert - other unsuccessful attempts on the life of Charles de Gaulle, and was also responsible for an amusing anecdote. The film's director, Fred Zinnemann later recounted that actor Adrian Cayla-Legrand - who played de Gaulle in the film - was mistaken by several Parisians for the real thing during filming - despite the fact that de Gaulle had already been dead for two years!
On August 22 1962 nobody managed to kill de Gaulle, but 10 years later cinema did manage to quickly resuscitate him!