The Magazine

The French Connection

Paris and Algiers pulled Camus in different directions.

Nov 26, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 11 • By ROGER KAPLAN
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Camus, always a man of the left and not especially friendly toward the American position in the Cold War, or the strategy of containment with its essential military component, saw Stalinism for what it was. Some of the others saw it for what they wanted it to be. But it was during the Algerian war that matters went from very bad to really awful, because Sartre and his friends, who knew very little about Algeria, decided that Camus and his friends, wife, mother, uncles, etc.--who, of course, really were Algerians--did not know anything and were playing into the hands of reactionary racist colonialist . . . dogs, as Sartre called them. It was awful.

Most of the French political class, led by the Socialists who happened to be in power at the time, supported the suppression of the armed revolt against French rule in Algeria. It was 1954 and, having been driven from Indochina, the French knew that decolonization was in the air. But l'Algérie, as Minister of Justice François Mitterrand insisted, c'est la France. Administratively and politically, he was right: Algeria comprised three departements of France. But as Camus had been saying since the late 1930s, when he wrote a famous reportage for the Communist Alger-Républicain newspaper on the oppression and misery of the Muslim population, this was wrong. It was not fair. You had a de facto colonial situation, and you had to fix it by giving full political equality to the Muslims.

Which the settlers could not conceive of doing. Most of the settlers, like Camus's family, were very poor. The conventional wisdom among Paris intellectuals was that they were parasitical plantation owners--gros colons; but that was a myth. There were some big landowners, of course, and there were farmers who had worked very hard to drain the swamps of the Mitidja valley and turn it into a citrus paradise. Algeria was sun-drenched, beautiful, sensual, and hard at the same time, and most of its inhabitants were poor.

Camus's position was that there were several populations in Algeria, and simple justice required they be taken into account when accounts were settled. At the outset of the armed revolt in 1954, for example, he asked why there should be an "Arab nation" in that land, as the National Liberation Front demanded. In its name, Front de Libération Nationale, the feminine of national is required because it is the liberation which is national, not the front. The FLN, like its predecessor organization led by Messali Hadj, posited a national entity to be liberated, and it claimed this was an Algerian homeland (patrie) within the Arab umma. But Camus asked: Why the Arabs? Why not the Kabyles, or the Berbers, more generally? Why not the Jews? Or, for that matter, the Maltese, the Spaniards--the French?

Hence the malentendu--not getting it--that Camus struggled to overcome during these years when he had to worry every day about whether his mother was boarding a bus that was about to explode. He thought that those who, from the safety of the cafés, used grand words like colonialism and freedom, and constructed their perfect worlds with other people's lives, didn't get it. And not getting it in a war can be a serious matter--justice in contradiction with itself. That is why he said, angrily at a press conference when he received the Nobel Prize, that between justice (equality for all in Algeria) and his mother, he would choose his mother.

The café crowd gave him hell for that one. Carroll twists it, out of his sincere love of Camus, to mean that killing his mother would have been an injustice, so therefore, and so on. And of course, that is so. But we have to be clear: Camus, a realistic man who had seen life up close in the slums of Belcourt and in the cruelties of the Nazi occupation, meant what he said. Justice can wait, if it's my mother's life that pays for it.

I happen to be gazing at the old coffee shop at the angle of the Boulevard Saint-Germain and the Rue Bonaparte as I write this. Sartre's office was around the corner, which is why the joint became a hangout and, eventually, a landmark. It's not a bad place--nice booths, but steep prices--and I am up on the fourth floor in a little place across the street asking my old dad, who lives here, whether any of this matters. He shakes his head in despair at my habit of asking stupid questions. He is about to be given a very high honor by the French Republic for his labors in making people like Sartre and Camus known to Americans. I do not ask whether any of that mattered, digging my hole deeper; but today, does it matter?