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Chroniques algériennes - Albert Camus

It's hard to get over how cool Camus was. He had the good looks, the unfiltered Gauloise, the Bogart trenchcoat, the philosophy fangirls: his romantic early death behind the wheel of a sports car seems almost inevitable.

The other thing about Camus is that he got it right. He was one of the very few European intellectuals (the other being George Orwell) to recognise that the excesses of fascism did not justify the excesses of Communism, and he said so. Former friends like Sartre and de Beauvoir called him bourgeois. A better word would be ‘accurate’, and this collection of essays and articles makes you wonder how crucial the Algeria question was in forming his clearsightedness.

L'Algérie françiase was of course Camus's homeland, and he had been ringing alarm bells over the situation there for longer than anyone else – the pieces in this collection cover, as he says, ‘a period of twenty years, from 1939, when almost no one in France was interested in this country, to 1958, when everyone was talking about it.’ On one side of the argument you had the right-wing hawks and colonial interests, determined to protect France's territory at any cost; on the other, you had a growing Arab nationalist movement determined to have an Algeria free from Europeans. In the middle, on his own, cigarette dangling from his lip, was Albert Camus, frantically waving his arms and trying to tell both sides to calm down and get along.


This collection has the air of a classical tragedy: there is an impending disaster which no one seems able to avert, despite plentiful opportunities. Cassandra-like, Camus makes predictions year after year after year which come true, and still no one seems to be listening to him. ‘One day, a choice needs to be made,’ he says in 1945.

France needs to say clearly whether it considers Algeria to be conquered territory whose subjects, deprived of all rights and burdened with a few extra duties, should live on our absolute dependance, or whether we consider our democratic principles universal enough to be extended to the populations that are in our charge.

La France devait dire clairement si elle considérait l'Algérie comme une terre conquise dont les sujets, privés de tous droits et gratifiés de quelques devoirs supplémentaires, devaient vivre dans notre dépendance absolue, ou si elle attribuait à ses principes démocratiques une valeur assez universelle pour qu'elle pût les étendre aux populations dont elle avait la charge.

Ten years later, when the war he tried so hard to prevent had finally started in earnest, he still found himself caught in the middle. He did not support French colonial interests, but neither could he support Algeria's Front de Libération Nationale, whose tactics involved widespread targeting of civilians.

Algeria is not France; it is not even Algeria. It is that unknown land, lost out of sight, with its incomprehensible natives, its annoying soldiers and exotic Frenchmen, in a fog of blood.

L'Algérie n'est pas la France, elle n'est même pas l'Algérie, elle est cette terre ignorée, perdue au loin, avec ses indigènes incompréhensibles, ses soldats gênants et ses Français exotiques, dans un brouillard de sang.

This outbreak of irony is the closest he comes to resignation. In general, as the years go by, his sentences just get shorter, clearer, and more desperate. He never stopped believing that a third way might be possible, suggesting even in the late 50s that both sides could at least agree to stop going after civilian targets (which disgusted former left-wing friends – Camus ‘had never sounded hollower than when he demanded pity for the civilians,’ said Simone de Beauvoir. ‘The humanist in him had given way to the pied noir’).


He is such a lucid writer. He's the opposite of the obscurantist, postmodern French thinkers of the following generation, who cannot say what they mean and probably don't know. Camus knows exactly what he thinks and he explains it directly, and not without an ear for the nicely-weighted phrase.

When the oppressed takes up arms in the name of justice, he is taking a step on to the territory of injustice.

Quand l'opprimé prend les armes au nom de la justice, il fait un pas sur la terre de l'injustice.

He is very strong on torture, which was such a crucial issue in the Algerian War.

Those who no longer wish to hear about morals must understand in any case that, even to win wars, it is better to suffer certain injustices than to commit them.

Ceux qui ne veulent plus entendre parler de morale devraient comprendre en tout cas que, même pour gagner les guerres, il vaut mieux souffrir certaines injustices que les commettre […].

Ultimately his efforts to appeal to the combatants' better instincts seem a bit naïve now, but with Camus's principles there was little other option. In reality too much had happened for Europeans and Arabs to live peacefully side-by-side in Algeria; one or both sides were going to get screwed. Camus knew it, but he felt he had to try all the same.

French and Arab friends, do not fail to reply to one of the last calls for a truly free and peaceful Algeria, so rich and creative! There is no other solution, no other solution at all than the one we are speaking of. Beyond that, there is just death and destruction.

Amis français et arabes, ne laissez pas sans réponse un des derniers appels pour une Algérie vraiment libre et pacifique, bientôt riche et créatrice! Il n'y a pas d'autre solution, il n'y a aucune autre solution que celle dont nous parlons. Au-delà d'elle, il n'y a que mort et destruction.

He was right. A year after he wrote these words, the war reached its grisly peak with the guerrilla warfare of the Battle of Algiers. Camus never wrote on Algeria again; he died in 1960 without ever seeing the war end. Perhaps that's just as well: after the peace accords were signed, almost all the pieds noirs left Algeria practically overnight, over a million refugees uprooted from their home country – yet another thing Camus saw coming, hoping all the time, against his better judgment, that he would be wrong.

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