On August 22, 1962, French warlord Charles de Gaulle survived what would be the most serious of 30 assassination attempts. De Gaulle and his wife, Yvonne, were crossing a Paris suburb for a flight from Villacoublay military airport, 13 km from the Élysée Palace.
The presidential couple were on their way back to Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, their country home halfway between the French capital and Strasbourg to the east. They were traveling in a black Citroën DS, followed by an escort vehicle and two motorcycle police officers on Triumph motorbikes.
As the Citroën drove through the southern suburb of Petit-Clamart, a commando armed with machine guns strafed De Gaulle’s vehicle and nearby shops. The president and his wife ducked away and escaped unscathed despite the car being hit multiple times and bullets passing inches from De Gaulle’s head. The president’s car sped towards the airport.
After the ambush, which lasted 45 seconds, investigators recovered a total of 187 casings from the scene.
“These are such bad shots,” joked De Gaulle, then 71 years old and a French hero of the Second World War, later.
Today, 60 years later, France remembers the president’s close flight, which was depicted at the start of British writer Frederick Forsyth’s 1971 novel The Day of the Jackal and the film of the same name by 1973.
The attempt was blamed on the Secret Army Organization (OAS), a right-wing French paramilitary group opposed to Algerian independence. The OAS carried out a series of assassinations and targeted attacks in France and Algeria after the Evian Accords, signed in March 1962, granted the former French colony its independence.
De Gaulle, who had organized an independence referendum the previous year, was a primary target for the group, whose motto was L’Algérie est française et le reste (Algeria is French and will remain so).
The mastermind of the Petit-Clamart ambush, Jean Bastien-Thiry, then 34, a lieutenant-colonel in the French air force and a supposedly brilliant military engineer, was not believed to have been a member of the ‘OAS but would have links with the group. Thiry was executed in 1963 after De Gaulle refused to pardon him. He was the last person executed by firing squad in France and left behind a wife and three young daughters. Two accomplices who shot the president and who were also sentenced to death had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment.
Jean-Paul Sartre was another OAS target because of his support for Algerian independence. The writer’s Paris apartment was attacked twice with plastic explosives.