The Magazine

Algerian Dilemma

Reflections from Camus in his centennial year.

Dec 9, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 13 • By ROGER KAPLAN
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But that is exactly what happened. When, in 1954, the federation of nationalist parties known as the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) took command of the independence movement, thrusting its most ruthless elements into command and launching a terror and guerrilla campaign, the reaction in Paris was brutal: “The only negotiation is war,” said François Mitterrand, then a young minister of justice (no doubt Camus appreciated the bitter irony). But as the FLN dug in, the center-left governments of the Fourth Republic began talking of negotiations that would, the settlers believed, lead to surrender.

Camus’s writings, mainly in L’Express—a magazine founded to oppose a purely military solution to the crisis—took on a different cast. The theme of justice remained dominant. But now he called attention to the coming injustice he feared would be done to his people, even as he continued to focus on the injustices committed for a century-and-a-half, in the name of a civilizing mission, against the Arabs and Berbers.  

Thus, Algerian Chronicles is one of the most dramatic volumes ever published in the genre of “selected news columns.” For, in Camus’s case, and particularly in the third Actuelles, what we have is not only real reporting and sensible policy recommendations, but the record of a soul in crisis.  

It is not that Camus was ambivalent about what was happening in Algeria. He remained steadfast in his belief that nothing was possible unless and until republican principles were truly and universally applied. Indeed, he was perfectly willing, even eager, to consider such matters as reparations, well aware (as his reporting shows) of the economic spoliation to which the Muslim majority was subjected. What he could not accept, however, was the idea of turning over a country of many and diverse communities to a single-party Arab nationalist regime.

After 1957 and the publication of his selections the following year, Camus cloaked himself in his famous “silence” on Algeria. He explained that the words he wrote, words of moderation and measure, would be distorted and abused. Since he was a marked man on both sides—as an apologist for colonialism by left-wing, Stalinist fellow travelers like Sartre, and as a traitor to his own people by the Algérie française—he feared that his own family, including his mother still in Algeria, would be targeted. Thus, during the last years of the war in Algeria, when it became the dominant political issue in France, Camus stayed on the sidelines.  

One can only conjecture, of course, but even had he stayed in the debate until his death in an automobile accident in 1960, Camus likely would not have had much influence. Which is, perhaps, the enduring lesson of this volume. Since the voice of restraint—what Camus liked to call the “Mediterranean voice”—cannot be heard in the midst of a savage war of peace, the greatest gift that a man of letters can offer is the example of courage: to stand on one’s own ground and speak, even if it means going against the conformism of thought that will, in the end, prevail.  

Roger Kaplan is a writer in Washington.