Algeria and Albert Camus

6 June, 2022
 
On July 5, 2022, Algeria celebrates the 60th anniversary of its independence from France. When it comes to Algeria, author and Nobel Prize laureate Albert Camus remains a problematic figure who today is both claimed and rejected by Algerian intellectuals and artists.

 

Oliver Gloag

 

Camus was always ambiva­lent about colo­nial­ism in Alge­ria and this ambiva­lence great­ly affect­ed him. In 1943, he wrote in his diary: “Alge­ria. I do not know if I make myself under­stood well. But I have the same feel­ing when return­ing to Alge­ria that one does look­ing at the face of a child. And despite this, I know that all is not pure.” 

For Camus, Alger­ian nation­al­ism could not be allowed to express itself for­mal­ly at the expense of France; Alger­ian inde­pen­dence was out of the question.

In the late 1930s Camus had advo­cat­ed the pas­sage of the Blum-Vio­l­lette bill, which would have grant­ed French cit­i­zen­ship to a very small minor­i­ty of Arab men (a few thou­sand). All efforts to pass the bill had failed in the 1930s, but the Sec­ond World War changed every­thing. Dur­ing the Ger­man occu­pa­tion, French resis­tance lead­ers, des­per­ate for Arab sup­port, accept­ed a pro­pos­al — The Man­i­festo of the Alger­ian Peo­ple — from Arab nation­al­ist lead­ers — includ­ing Mes­sali Hadj rep­re­sent­ing the Alger­ian People’s Par­ty (PPA), Sheikh Bachir al-Ibrahi­mi for the Mus­lim reli­gious schol­ars, and Fer­hat Abbas for those in favor of auton­o­my. The goal of the Man­i­festo was the estab­lish­ment of an autonomous Alger­ian state.

Oliv­er Gloag’s Albert Camus: A Very Short Intro­duc­tion” is pubished by OUP.

Although in March 1943 the gov­er­nor of French Alge­ria accept­ed the Man­i­festo as a basis for forth­com­ing nego­ti­a­tions, he lat­er with­drew his sup­port. The orig­i­nal grant­i­ng of the Man­i­festo had raised the hopes of Alger­ian nation­al­ists. This with­draw­al, com­bined with the des­per­a­tion of the Alger­ian peo­ple, grave­ly suf­fer­ing from wartime food restric­tions, cre­at­ed an explo­sive situation.

In ear­ly 1944, Charles de Gaulle, now head of the Pro­vi­sion­al Gov­ern­ment of the French Repub­lic, the inter­im gov­ern­ment of France, offered to pass the Blum-Vio­l­lette bill into law. How­ev­er, sens­ing weak­ness, the Alger­ian nation­al­ist lead­ers refused. The French author­i­ties con­tin­ued to blow hot and cold: on 7 March 1944, de Gaulle uni­lat­er­al­ly revoked the indige­nous code (though there were still no equal vot­ing rights), but on 25 April 1945, he had Mes­sali Hadj, the most charis­mat­ic, rad­i­cal, and coura­geous Alger­ian nation­al­ist leader, deport­ed to Braz­zav­ille in the Con­go. This was the con­text for the riots of VE Day that end­ed with the mas­sacres in Sétif and Guel­ma.

An Alger­ian pop­u­la­tion which had suf­fered the wartime restric­tions more than the met­ro­pol­i­tan French, a nation­al­ist lead­er­ship which had believed that inde­pen­dence was at hand, a peo­ple who had con­tributed thou­sands of its young men to the first French vic­to­ries on the Ital­ian front — were now unable to wave their own flag in cel­e­bra­tion of VE Day. The French and pieds-noirs’ reac­tion was a ver­i­ta­ble mas­sacre which last­ed for weeks; thou­sands of Alge­ri­ans were slaugh­tered. It set back for ten years the move­ment for Alger­ian inde­pen­dence, but it also ensured that upon its re-emer­gence the actors would be more deter­mined than ever. The con­text for the month-long repres­sion was a weak­ened French state, des­per­ate to hold on to a colo­nial empire by any means.

Though he nev­er dis­cussed in detail the mas­sacres of Sétif and Guel­ma, Camus was enthu­si­as­tic about the abo­li­tion of the indige­nous code and the de fac­to pass­ing of the Blum-Vio­l­lette bill, although the bloody mas­sacres showed that it was too lit­tle, too late. Camus pushed for more rights to be grant­ed to Alge­ri­ans after the war. He want­ed more Alge­ri­ans to have access to edu­ca­tion and all grad­u­ates from pri­ma­ry school to obtain French cit­i­zen­ship, yet he stopped short of ask­ing for vot­ing rights for all. Camus was to be the advo­cate of peace and com­pro­mise, with one objec­tive in mind: for Alge­ria to remain French. He appealed main­ly to the met­ro­pol­i­tan author­i­ties, writ­ing in the press that the effort to retain Alge­ria as a part of France demand­ed a “sec­ond con­quest”; in oth­er words, Alger­ian hearts and minds had to be won over.

How­ev­er, the sit­u­a­tion demand­ed greater con­ces­sions, a fact of which Camus was acute­ly aware. In the after­math of the Sec­ond World War, it was no longer pos­si­ble to ignore the demands of col­o­nized peo­ple for their rights; these demands sur­faced at every lev­el: polit­i­cal, cul­tur­al, and on the streets. Dur­ing this peri­od, the long-repressed colo­nial real­i­ty began slow­ly to emerge in Camus’s fic­tion, until it even­tu­al­ly took cen­ter stage.

 

The Exile and the Kingdom

The last of Camus’ s fic­tion pub­lished in his life­time, The Exile and the King­dom is a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, many of which are steeped in the North African con­text. Some of these sto­ries echo Camus’s anger at Sartre and the after­math of their quar­rel. But in oth­ers his grow­ing con­cern with the rise of nation­al­ism in Alge­ria is omnipresent, though nev­er dis­cussed direct­ly until “The Host.”

Archival pho­to of the Setif massacre.

The first short sto­ry, “The Adul­ter­ous Woman,” is the sto­ry of Janine, the wife of a pied-noir cloth sales­man. They trav­el into the desert — 200 miles south of Algiers — so that he can sell his wares to the local pop­u­la­tion. Camus tells the sto­ry from her point of view — her impres­sions as they go deep­er into what increas­ing­ly seems a for­eign land. At first, Janine describes Arabs as an indis­tinct group. She feels they are feign­ing sleep; she does not like their silence and indif­fer­ence. Through­out the sto­ry, she feels estranged by Arabs and com­ments on their lan­guage, which she heard all her life but does not under­stand. She hates the “stu­pid arro­gance” of an Arab who is look­ing at her, to which her hus­band adds, “they think they can do any­thing now.” These remarks high­light that the abo­li­tion of the indige­nous code in 1944 is a source of the pieds-noirs’ fear. There is also fear of com­ing unrest. The entire time, the wife feels that all the Arabs are sur­round­ing her, as though they are an oppres­sive force.

In the final scene, Janine wakes up in the mid­dle of the night, goes onto the bal­cony, stares at the hori­zon, and is enthralled by the forces of nature — a quin­tes­sen­tial Camu­sian moment of bon­heur, a “per­fect” moment when “time stops.” Simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, the sounds from the Arab town stop. (In Camus’s words: “A knot that habit, bore­dom, years had tied, was com­ing undone, slow­ly.”) Sym­bol­i­cal­ly, the Arabs are gone. In an intense com­mu­nion with nature, Janine tran­scends the cold, the weight of oth­ers, the anguish of liv­ing and dying. Final­ly, upon return­ing and fac­ing her hus­band in their small hotel room she is over­come with tears. She has expe­ri­enced a cathar­tic moment.

For Camus, these sym­bol­ic moments of merg­ing with nature rep­re­sent a pow­er­ful rejec­tion of human his­to­ry. It is the fan­ta­sy of an atem­po­ral Alge­ria void of most of its indige­nous inhab­i­tants, an inchoate fan­ta­sy which is the sole source of true, intense bliss — or bon­heur — for the char­ac­ter, and indeed for Camus himself.

“The Host” is arguably the most pow­er­ful sto­ry in the col­lec­tion. The hero is Daru, a pied-noir teacher. He lives in the moun­tains of Alge­ria in a home which dou­bles as the school. Daru is greet­ed one cold win­ter morn­ing with the arrival on a don­key of Bal­duc­ci, a tough local police­man with a heart of gold — Camus’s ver­sion of the salt of the earth pied-noir who appears fre­quent­ly in his fic­tion. With Bal­duc­ci, on foot and tied to the don­key with a rope, is a local Arab man accused of killing a rel­a­tive. (As in The Stranger, the Arab is nev­er named.) Daru is sum­mar­i­ly charged with bring­ing the man to the author­i­ties, some­thing he is loath to do. But Bal­duc­ci makes it a mat­ter of loy­al­ty and hon­or to try and force Daru’s hand, to put him on the spot. Camus felt the same way dur­ing the Alger­ian War of Inde­pen­dence, stuck between two war­ring par­ties with no way to express his own per­spec­tive. Thus, the hero Daru can be seen as a stand-in for Camus.

Though Daru accepts Balducci’s account of the Arab man’s guilt at face val­ue, he does not want to deliv­er him to the author­i­ties. Nei­ther does he want to upset the old man. To put pres­sure on Daru, Bal­duc­ci says that war is brew­ing, Arabs may rise up, and then “we will all be involved.” Daru does not want to be involved, but his­tor­i­cal events catch up with him. Daru and Bal­duc­ci argue and final­ly, reluc­tant­ly, Daru agrees to sign a note con­firm­ing that he has received the pris­on­er, but he does not promise to deliv­er him. This cre­ates a rift between the two men. Once Bal­duc­ci leaves, Daru feels guilty that he let Bal­duc­ci down. Daru, like Camus, is caught between the desire to avoid con­flict and his alle­giance and close­ness to the pied-noir community.

Furi­ous at the Arab for com­mit­ting a mur­der and upset at Bal­duc­ci for order­ing him to deliv­er the pris­on­er to the author­i­ties, Daru is caught between two con­flict­ing alle­giances. So, in the end Daru com­pro­mis­es. He brings the Arab halfway toward the city and the prison and tells him that east is prison and south are nomads who would take him as one of their own. After hes­i­tat­ing, the Arab goes east, and Daru returns home.

Camus por­trays Daru as a man caught between two fac­tions, but a kind man who tries to be fair. We are meant to feel empa­thy for him, which delib­er­ate­ly does not pre­pare us for the shock of the final para­graph. Upon return­ing to his class­room, Daru finds writ­ten on the black­board the fol­low­ings words of men­ace: “you have deliv­ered our broth­er. You will pay.” Kind, fair, but mis­un­der­stood by all, alone, pres­sured by his own, threat­ened by Arabs — this is how Camus saw him­self in the midst of the strug­gle for Alger­ian independence.

Com­men­ta­tors are split on the inter­pre­ta­tion of the end of the sto­ry: the focus is on either Daru as a gen­uine­ly noble fig­ure (after all, he refus­es to send the Arab man to prison), or on how odd it is for a nar­ra­tive set in colo­nial times to have a set­tler por­trayed as a vic­tim and sole sym­pa­thet­ic character.

 

Albert Camus, on June 13, 1947, when he learned he’d won France’s Prix des Cri­tiques for his nov­el The Plague.

A civ­il truce

The war in Alge­ria, which began on All Saints’ Day in 1954, was affect­ing Camus not only as a writer, a French cit­i­zen, and a pied-noir, but also as a pub­lic fig­ure. Two years after the start of the war, Camus trav­elled to Algiers to give a talk, an impas­sioned plea for peace. This is known as his “Call for a Civ­il Truce in Algeria.”

He was under no illu­sion about stop­ping the war; his goal was an agree­ment between the two war­ring par­ties to end the killing of inno­cents. The atmos­phere sur­round­ing Camus’s inter­ven­tion was one of hos­til­i­ty from unex­pect­ed quar­ters: the pied-noir may­or of Algiers had refused to host the con­fer­ence, and when a venue was found — thanks to mod­er­ate Alger­ian orga­ni­za­tions, who also orga­nized secu­ri­ty — he could hear hos­tile cries from the street of the pieds-noirs crowd: “death to Camus! Death to Mendès-France (pre­mier of France, 1954–5, who had been in favor of end­ing colo­nial wars)! Long live French Alge­ria!” Ulti­mate­ly, the con­fer­ence was short­ened for fear of vio­lence from the pieds-noirs groups.

Camus opened his speech by imme­di­ate­ly con­demn­ing the pro­test­ers who wished to silence him. It was a mov­ing retelling of his moti­va­tion and his plight: “for 20 years I have done what I could to help con­cord between our two peo­ple.” It was also an admis­sion of fail­ure: you can heck­le me, you can even laugh at me, Camus implied, but at this stage the emer­gency is to pre­vent undue suffering.

He attempt­ed to sep­a­rate the Alge­ri­ans’ fight for jus­tice from their fight for inde­pen­dence, which he described as “for­eign ambi­tions” which would defin­i­tive­ly ruin France. Was this a ref­er­ence to the Sovi­et Union? In the Cold War con­text, the specter of the Sovi­et Union tak­ing over was a clas­sic argu­ment which sup­port­ers of colo­nial pow­ers made for con­tin­ued con­trol over a colony. At the heart of the speech was this: for Camus, Alger­ian nation­al­ism could not be allowed to express itself for­mal­ly at the expense of France; Alger­ian inde­pen­dence was out of the ques­tion. Keep at it, and there will be per­pet­u­al war, Camus said to his large­ly Alger­ian audi­ence. His mes­sage of peace also includ­ed an indi­rect warn­ing: if you don’t nego­ti­ate, the fight­ing will con­tin­ue ad infinitum.

Camus con­clud­ed by prais­ing the mem­bers of the Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ty for orga­niz­ing the con­fer­ence and told the mixed audi­ence that what moved them was human­ism, not pol­i­tics. Camus here dis­played an almost endear­ing naivety; in fact, the Alger­ian Nation­al Lib­er­a­tion Front (FLN) was the force behind the con­fer­ence. Amar Ouze­gane, a friend of Camus and a fel­low mem­ber of the Com­mu­nist Par­ty in the 1930s, was one of the orga­niz­ers of the con­fer­ence. He was also, unbe­knownst to Camus, a mem­ber of the FLN. The objec­tive was to claim Camus, to con­vince him that the rev­o­lu­tion was justified.

Many years lat­er Ouze­gane would explain, “the civ­il truce was a way for us [the FLN] to help hon­est folks, ene­mies of injus­tice but hos­tile to vio­lence, to open their eyes and to pro­gres­sive­ly real­ize that the FLN was right.” Did the FLN have a chance to con­vince Camus? This was very unlike­ly, but cer­tain­ly that Camus gave his speech for peace sur­round­ed by hun­dreds of pieds-noirs bay­ing for his death was a step in the right direc­tion as far as the FLN was con­cerned; for them, it was a pub­lic rela­tions coup.

This moment is emblem­at­ic of Camus’s ambigu­ous posi­tion aris­ing from the com­bi­na­tion of his sin­cere desire for peace and his inabil­i­ty to per­ceive the scope of the injus­tice suf­fered by Alge­ri­ans through­out the French occu­pa­tion. Camus oscil­lates between nation­al­ism and human­ism, des­per­ate­ly attempt­ing the impos­si­ble com­bi­na­tion of the two.

In a let­ter to a close friend after the con­fer­ence, Camus writes, “I returned from Alge­ria quite depressed. What is hap­pen­ing is strength­en­ing my con­vic­tion. It is all for me a ‘mal­heur per­son­nel.’” As mal­heur in French is the oppo­site of bon­heur, for Camus this was a tragedy, and a per­son­al disaster.

Baya’s “La danse (or Femme aux instru­ments de musique)”, 1968 gouache and water­col­or on paper, 75 x 110 cm.

Through­out his life, Camus repressed his mod­est pied-noir ori­gins in var­i­ous ways: by the style of his dress start­ing as a teenag­er, by the style and sub­ject mat­ter of his first three major works (uni­ver­sal themes), even by his focus on Spain, the coun­try which out­ward­ly most con­cerned him from a polit­i­cal per­spec­tive (rather than Alge­ria), and which served as an ide­al­ized space where he could com­bine his Span­ish roots with a pro­gres­sive cause. But, in the late 1950s, with the very exis­tence of French Alge­ria at stake, Camus had no choice but to address his roots and takes sides in the ongo­ing con­flict, as he would in his posthu­mous nov­el, The First Man. It is per­haps for that rea­son the best intro­duc­tion to his work, for it makes clear what is at the root of his refusal of his­to­ry and what moti­vates his ven­er­a­tion of nature.

What emerges in his fic­tion but was until then always implic­it or hid­den is an unvar­nished emo­tion­al defence of French set­tlers, of French Alge­ria — it is a com­ing out, a mask that falls: noth­ing is more impor­tant to Camus than France’s pres­ence in Alge­ria. This is the sto­ry of the hid­den gen­e­sis behind his works, his com­mit­ments, his world­view, even his love of nature. His last book, The First Man, is the sin­cere cry of a man who feels he has noth­ing to lose, noth­ing to hide any­more. It is the key to all his works.

This unfin­ished nov­el takes place most­ly dur­ing the war. There is a clear sense that Alge­ri­ans are going to reclaim their coun­try, and per­va­sive feel­ings of anx­i­ety, fear, and anger on the part of the set­tlers at the cen­ter of the sto­ry. Camus tries to jus­ti­fy the French pres­ence in Alge­ria: he is fac­ing the colo­nial sit­u­a­tion from an unprece­dent­ed posi­tion, from a place of weak­ness. The war is Camus’s worst fear come true. The nov­el itself is high­ly auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal; it is the sto­ry of a pied-noir named Jacques Cormery, who now lives in France. (In the man­u­script he occa­sion­al­ly is named Albert and Cormery was Camus’s pater­nal grandmother’s last name.) A first-per­son nar­ra­tive from Jacques alter­nates with dia­logues between set­tlers and Jacques’s child­hood mem­o­ries. When Jacques, who lives in Paris, returns to his native land, he is con­front­ed with the set­tlers’ anger, fear, and resent­ment towards the rise of Arab nation­al­ism. The nov­el fea­tures lengthy dia­logues between an aggriev­ed set­tler and a less intran­si­gent­ly anti-Arab one along­side a nar­ra­tor who attempts to make us under­stand the set­tlers’ anger.

One such dia­logue occurs when Levesque, a friend of Jacques’s father, rem­i­nisces about their 1905 ser­vice in the French army fight­ing Moroc­cans. Upon find­ing the muti­lat­ed body of a French sol­dier — which is described at length — Jacques’s father says about Moroc­can combatants:

“A man stops him­self. That’s what a man does, if not…” And then he calmed down. …And sud­den­ly he shout­ed: “Filthy race, what a race, all of them, all…”

This pas­sage is in keep­ing with many oth­ers in the nov­el, where most of the dia­logue denies the human­i­ty of Arabs. The actions of Arabs against the French invaders are described in detail, while the crimes of Euro­peans are only sug­gest­ed. The end of this pas­sage is also emblem­at­ic, for it con­cludes with a defin­i­tive judge­ment about race ema­nat­ing from the father fig­ure, who is ide­al­ized through­out the nov­el. His racist cry is pre­sent­ed to the read­er as the “under­stand­able” reac­tion of a vic­tim. Camus also includes attempts to explain what the nar­ra­tor calls the xeno­pho­bia of the settlers:

Unem­ploy­ment … was the most feared ill [by the pieds-noirs]. This explained that the work­ers, who in dai­ly life were always the most tol­er­ant of men, were always xeno­phobes when it came to work, accus­ing in suc­ces­sion Ital­ians, Spaniards, Jews, Arabs and final­ly the whole world of steal­ing their work — a dis­con­cert­ing atti­tude cer­tain­ly for intel­lec­tu­als who the­o­rize on the work­ing class, but yet quite human and very excusable.

Camus does not chal­lenge the racism of pieds-noirs in French Alge­ria but instead jus­ti­fies it. He uses class con­cerns (unem­ploy­ment) as an expla­na­tion for the xeno­pho­bic reac­tion of the set­tlers. Through the nar­ra­tor, racism occurs here as part of human nature, as an under­stand­able reac­tion from ulti­mate­ly like­able char­ac­ters. Here Camus also uses his mod­est ori­gins like a weapon, at times infer­ring that these ori­gins give him an aware­ness and an authen­tic­i­ty lack­ing in some of his oth­er inter­locu­tors with more priv­i­leged back­grounds. This is yet anoth­er allu­sion to Sartre.

Per­haps odd­ly, the main adver­sary in this defence of French Alge­ria is not the Arab rebel, but the French anti-colo­nial left. In anoth­er telling pas­sage, a set­tler who owns a vine­yard is uproot­ing the vines in his prop­er­ty to ensure that Arabs will not be able to prof­it from them once they take back their land. When asked what he is doing by Cormery, the set­tler responds with what is meant to be bit­ter irony: “young man, since what we have done is a crime, we should erase it.”

Camus depicts the landown­er as a trag­ic fig­ure: an admirable hard-work­ing man, an old pied-noir, one of those who “are being insult­ed in Paris.” Yet this destruc­tion of the vine­yards harks back to one of the most somber hours of the French con­quest of Alge­ria: in 1840 when Alex­is de Tocqueville’s friends, Gen­er­al de La Mori­cière and future gov­er­nor-gen­er­al of Alge­ria Bugeaud, agreed to make the sys­tem­at­ic destruc­tion of Arab crops a pol­i­cy to “pre­vent the Arabs from enjoy­ing the fruits of their fields.” This uproot­ing of olive trees and the destruc­tion or con­fis­ca­tion of fields were a cru­cial moment in France’s con­quest of Alge­ria. Forced to leave that con­quered ter­ri­to­ry, the French once again destroy cul­ti­vat­ed land, but this time Camus describes them as being vic­tims of an injustice.

This final unfin­ished nov­el, The First Man, becomes a plat­form for the expres­sion of the white set­tlers’ resent­ment. In par­tic­u­lar, resent­ment against the metro­pole (the cen­tral Parisian author­i­ty but also main­land France in gen­er­al) is present through­out, for exam­ple, in this exchange between the main char­ac­ter — Camus’s alter ego, Cormery — and a pied-noir farmer who tells him: “I have sent my fam­i­ly to Algiers [for safe­ty] and I will die here. They don’t under­stand that in Paris.” The farmer’s hatred of the metro­pole is such that he express­es more respect for the Arabs who vio­lent­ly oppose his rule. The farm own­er advis­es his Arab work­ers to join the Alger­ian resis­tance because “there are no men in France”—that is, the pieds-noirs will lose because of the weak­ness of the met­ro­pol­i­tan French. This is the despair of the white set­tler; he feels aban­doned by Paris and as a con­se­quence, resigned to the rise of the Alger­ian resistance.

Anoth­er leit­mo­tif in this work is the ide­al­iza­tion of a time peri­od that pre-dates human exis­tence. For Camus sees him­self, through Cormery, as torn between two uni­vers­es, Europe and Alge­ria, sep­a­rat­ed by the Mediterranean:

The Mediter­ranean delin­eat­ed two uni­vers­es with me, one where in mea­sured spaces mem­o­ries and names were pre­served, and the oth­er where the wind and the sand erased the traces of men over great spaces.

That is, Alge­ria is the place with no mem­o­ries, no traces of men. Here Camus equates once more the notion of anonymi­ty with Alge­ria (and there­fore with Alge­ri­ans) but also on a moral scale equates it with a place where human his­to­ry is insignif­i­cant — which allows the nega­tion not only of the past of indige­nous peo­ple, but also of the recent past of colonialism.

The book’s title is also an appeal to a past of a dif­fer­ent kind. The bib­li­cal con­no­ta­tions are evi­dent, and it is inter­est­ing that Camus thought about nam­ing the first char­ac­ter Adam. This is part of a pieds-noirs or colo­nial­ist fan­ta­sy that is unex­pressed but present: the notion that no man was present on this land before him — much like Adam and Eve,. This is a world vision that places Euro­pean set­tlers and Euro­pean myth respec­tive­ly at the cen­ter of all things. For exam­ple, Camus describes the main char­ac­ter as being born “on a land with no ances­tors and no mem­o­ry … where old age found none of the suc­cor from melan­choly which it receives in civ­i­lized countries …”

In quin­tes­sen­tial Camu­sian fash­ion, Cormery con­ceives of him­self as being part of nature in a long stream of con­scious­ness which was to be the end of the manuscript:

Like a soli­tary wave, always mov­ing whose des­tiny is to break once and for­ev­er, a pure pas­sion to live fac­ing total death, [he] felt for life, youth, beings escape him with­out being able to do any­thing for them and aban­doned only to this blind hope that this obscure force which for so many years had lift­ed him above days, nour­ished him immea­sur­ably, equal to the direst of cir­cum­stances, would fur­nish him as well, and from the same tire­less gen­eros­i­ty from which she had giv­en him his rea­sons to live, some rea­sons to age and die with revolt.

This “obscure force” is Camus’s thought — with all its strengths and lim­i­ta­tions; the force is at once a refusal of intel­li­gence and a regres­sion towards nature: he is part of a greater whole, a wave in the sea. This uni­ty with nature had pre­vi­ous­ly helped Camus to tran­scend and escape the colo­nial real­i­ties. This is no longer pos­si­ble; we are left with Camus’s mov­ing plea that this force come to the res­cue, even in defeat. His real­iza­tion is that the dream of a return to “the good old days” is illu­so­ry; his colo­nial fan­ta­sy of the French as “indige­nous to Alge­ria” is dis­man­tled. Camus’s dis­may is overwhelming.

Alge­ria today (map cour­tesy nationsonline.org).

 

The dream of a world ruled by nature rather than by soci­ety was shat­tered as well in his very first pub­lished nov­el. Return­ing to The Stranger we can see that the Arab was killed not only because he occu­pied the priv­i­leged space of Meursault’s com­mu­nion with the sea and the sun, but because he announced the inevitabil­i­ty of the rise of the Arab “oth­er.” The First Man reflects both an inchoate desire to negate this new real­i­ty (the com­ing of Alger­ian inde­pen­dence) and a long mourn­ing of the old colo­nial order.

Through­out this final work, Camus was torn between his reformist, social­ly con­scious lean­ings and his con­tra­dic­to­ry desire for Alge­ria to remain for­ev­er teth­ered to France. The text accord­ing­ly tries to legit­imize France’s col­o­niza­tion of Alge­ria in the most inter­est­ing of ways. Instead of attempt­ing to speak to France’s civ­i­liz­ing mis­sion (a clas­sic argu­ment employed by France for cen­turies), or the need for col­o­niza­tion to main­tain France’s sta­tus as a great pow­er (a more naked Realpoli­tik per­spec­tive which Camus employed at times), Camus describes the pied-noir set­tlers as rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies. This new argu­ment, which he devel­oped in The First Man, was going to be the final attempt to resolve this con­tra­dic­tion for him.

Camus writes that the ear­ly set­tlers of Alge­ria had been a part of the French rev­o­lu­tion of 1848, specif­i­cal­ly he states they had been vic­tims of the anti-rev­o­lu­tion­ary repres­sion that took place in June of that year and left for Alge­ria as a result. How­ev­er, his­to­ri­ans chal­lenge the notion that there was a rev­o­lu­tion­ary French work­ing class in Alge­ria. Accord­ing to the lead­ing author­i­ty on the mat­ter, his­to­ri­an Charles-André Julien (1891–1991), the French work­ers who left France for Alge­ria in the after­math of the repres­sion of June 1848 became oppres­sors them­selves: “the work­ers and arti­sans who had sur­vived the days of June 48 … were those who were the most ruth­less against Arabs.”

Camus tried here to claim the rev­o­lu­tion­ary strug­gles of 1848 to legit­imize the pres­ence of French set­tlers in Alge­ria. This view is unusu­al for Camus, who typ­i­cal­ly rejects human his­to­ry as a frame of ref­er­ence. How­ev­er, for the cause of the pieds-noirs, Camus was ready to undo every­thing, even his own beliefs and ahis­tor­i­cal principles.

The First Man is an ode and a defence to the pieds-noirs. It is a trag­ic work where Camus for the first time faces his con­tra­dic­tion and res­olute­ly choos­es the side of French Alge­ria, as he wrote in his diary in May 1958:

My job is to write my books and to fight when the free­dom of mine and my peo­ple is threat­ened. Noth­ing else.

The emblem­at­ic expres­sion of Camus’s choice of his roots over jus­tice was also his cri du cœur dur­ing a press con­fer­ence in Stock­holm, on the occa­sion of his win­ning the Nobel Prize for Lit­er­a­ture. When attacked by a mil­i­tant of the FLN for espous­ing the cause of East­ern Euro­peans but not Alge­ri­ans, he retort­ed: “I believe in Jus­tice, but I will defend my moth­er before Jus­tice.” It was an odd response, because it implic­it­ly rec­og­nized that the French colo­nial sys­tem was unjust. Put anoth­er way, Camus’s response was a defence of his moth­er but also the admis­sion that the cause of the FLN was just. Camus was bro­ken on a per­son­al lev­el by the events in Alge­ria, as he wrote in his diary: “… Alge­ria obsess­es me. Too late, too late … My land lost, I will be worth nothing.”

Camus could not con­ceive of Alger­ian inde­pen­dence, nor could he con­ceive of him­self as sep­a­rate from French Alge­ria. It was his “red line in the sand,” the bound­ary which should not be crossed, the ulti­mate taboo. Alge­ria was the jew­el in France’s colo­nial empire, so impor­tant that the French author­i­ties con­sid­ered it a region of France. It was not just a mil­i­tary con­quest; it was an admin­is­tra­tive one as well. Camus was defined and defined him­self by colo­nial Alge­ria and could not live with­out it. Yet the para­dox is that for many observers and read­ers, what remains is the sense that Camus per­sua­sive­ly uses the rhetoric of human­ism while sup­port­ing French sov­er­eign­ty over Alge­ria. This con­tra­dic­tion tore Camus apart while he was alive, but the illu­sion that he had resolved it remains.

Yet on some lev­el Camus did resolve it. In 1956, with Alger­ian inde­pen­dence now a very real pos­si­bil­i­ty, he put forth a more ambi­tious pro­pos­al for com­pro­mise. He want­ed to give Alge­ri­ans qua­si-com­plete auton­o­my with a bicam­er­al sys­tem. There would be two par­lia­ments, one for Alge­ri­ans, one for French set­tlers, and pow­er would be shared equal­ly except for two domains — the mil­i­tary and eco­nom­ic, which would remain the purview of the French. The result would have del­e­gat­ed day-to-day admin­is­tra­tion to the Algerians.

Although Camus under­es­ti­mat­ed the bal­ance of pow­er between the French and Alger­ian sides, what he pro­posed for Alge­ria was a com­pro­mise sim­i­lar in many ways to the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion of many for­mer French African colonies, which, though sov­er­eign, share a cur­ren­cy con­trolled by Paris, and that they should be the locus for sub­stan­tial French eco­nom­ic inter­ests as well as French mil­i­tary bases. This par­al­lel between Camus’s propo­si­tion for Alge­ria and what has emerged in most French-speak­ing African coun­tries today explains in part why he has become the intel­lec­tu­al legit­imiza­tion for today’s neo-colo­nial real­i­ty, and why so many present-day West­ern polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al fig­ures claim him as one of their own.

 

Oliver Gloag was born in New York City and raised in France. As a young activist, he travelled to Nicaragua as part of a solidarity brigade, worked with families of victims of police brutality, campaigned against the expulsion of a Moroccan student (Jussieu Paris VII), and was a member of the committee for the liberation of Abraham Serfaty. As a lawyer in New Orleans, Oliver successfully represented asylum-seekers from Iraq and Congo DR, and was recognized for his work by then Mayor Marc Morial. As an academic, his work is at the intersection of history, literature and politics. His focus is on France’s fraught relationship to its colonial past and neocolonial present. He has written and spoken extensively on Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. His latest book is Albert Camus, a very short introduction, published by Oxford University Press.

Albert CamusAlgeriaAlgerian war for independenceFranceFrench colonialism

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