A Moralist in the Newsroom

Enda O’Doherty

Avec Camus, by Jean Daniel, Gallimard, 158 pp, €9.50, ISBN: 2070781933

In August 1944, as General Dietrich von Choltitz defied Hitler’s orders to burn Paris and surrendered the city to Free French and Resistance commanders, two journalists and former résistants, one in his thirty-first year, the other just turned forty-one, were among a small group who took possession of the rue Réaumur premises of the Wehrmacht newspaper the Pariser Zeitung, so hastily evacuated by its former occupants that they left behind their hand grenades.

Albert Camus and Pascal Pia’s acquaintance went back to 1938, when Pia, already an experienced newspaperman, had hired the young Camus as a secrétaire de rédaction (subeditor) on Alger Républicain, a left-wing daily established to oppose fascism and anti-Semitism and support the social and political emancipation of Algeria’s Muslims. The two worked together again at Paris-Soir in spring 1940 as France huddled behind the Maginot line awaiting Germany’s next move. When the blow came, in May, it was swift. French armies collapsed on the eastern front and on June 14th the Germans entered Paris. At first Camus followed the Paris-Soir team as they evacuated to Clermont-Ferrand, then Lyon, in the unoccupied zone. At the end of the year, however, he was laid off by his employer and in January 1941 returned with his new wife, Francine, to Algeria.

It was during a prolonged stay in the mountains of central France in 1942 and 1943, initially undertaken on doctor’s advice to treat his tuberculosis, that Camus first came into contact with active members of the Resistance. Of those he met there he was most drawn to the young Catholic poet René Leynaud, a regional leader of the Combat movement, whose passion and sincerity he found immediately appealing, in spite of their differences over religion. Leynaud was to be one of a large group of prisoners shot by the Germans in Lyon in summer 1944.

It is difficult to know with any precision when Camus himself first became active in the Resistance as in later life he seldom talked about it, but a false identity card issued in May 1943 in the name Albert Mathé suggests one possible starting point. That autumn he moved to Paris and began work as a reader with the Gallimard firm, which had published his first novel, The Outsider, and the philosophical tract The Myth of Sisyphus in the previous year. It was also about this time that Camus, introduced by Pia, joined the editorial team of the clandestine newssheet Combat, operating under the pseudonym Bauchard.

Combat, which in its latter years was edited in Paris and printed in Lyon, published fifty-eight clandestine issues over four years. When, on August 21st, 1944, it appeared openly for the first time, Pascal Pia took the post of director, with Camus as editor-in-chief, with a particular responsibility for writing editorials. In deference to former colleagues who had been shot or deported by the Germans, the first issue to be sold freely on the streets of Paris bore the number fifty-nine.

In an editorial in this edition Camus immediately hit on a theme which was to continue to preoccupy him throughout his collaboration with Combat, the power of money in French society and its relationship to freedom of the press and freedom of opinion. “It would not be enough,” he wrote, “to reconquer the appearances of liberty with which the France of 1939 had to content itself. And we would have accomplished only the most insignificant part of our task if the French Republic of tomorrow were to find itself, like the Third Republic, caught in the tight grip of money.”

The newspapers of the 1930s had scarcely been an ornament of the virtues of French civilisation. Many indeed were marked by corruption, political blindness, triviality, complacency and the substitution of coarse abuse and vendetta for political argument. In 1937 the socialist interior minister Roger Salengro was driven to suicide by a campaign of false accusations against him, payback, many thought, for his role in suppressing the extra-parliamentary leagues of the extreme right. Nor did a reading of the press necessarily prepare the French for the dangers that lay ahead. Seventy out of a hundred Frenchmen, wrote one commentator in 1943, remained unaware of German responsibility for the bombing of Guernica, while nothing that might arouse the public against the left, or against Britain, was omitted.

Influence on the newspaper press could be exercised directly or indirectly, through the ownership of titles by rich men or industrial cartels or through subvention (bribery) by ambitious individuals, the secret funds of foreign governments or those of the French state itself. From the late 1920s each department of state had on its books a certain number of “kept” journalists, who could be relied on to publish what was required of them and to write favourable commentary on demand in return for a regular “envelope”. In the 1930s this practice seems to have extended to the Bank of France, other financial institutions, employers’ confederations and foreign embassies and legations. From bribery it was just another small step to blackmail: if a publication could accept money for publishing news favourable to a politician, might it not also extract it for not publishing news unfavourable to him, true or otherwise?

It was scarcely surprising that many of the practitioners of this corrupt press felt little scruple, after 1940, about working for the Nazis or the collaborationist regime of Marshal Pétain. In 1944, as the Germans left Paris and the new French administration began to set up its own machinery of justice and retribution, many paid a high price for that collaboration, facing imprisonment, confiscation of property, withdrawal of citizenship and, in a small number of cases, the death penalty. All newspapers which had continued publication throughout the occupation were closed and had their assets seized.

Camus initially supported harsh punishments for the most important collaborators, among whom he included war profiteers and those who had poisoned public opinion against the Resistance and the Allies. He engaged in a fierce controversy with the Catholic novelist François Mauriac, a columnist for the conservative Le Figaro, over the conflicting demands of justice and mercy. (Later he was to feel, and eventually to state publicly, that in this matter it was Mauriac who had been in the right.) Camus’s enthusiasm for exemplary punishment in the immediate post-war period was almost certainly linked to his continuing grief for lost friends like René Leynaud. Ultimately, however, he was more concerned with structures than with individuals and the future than the past.

The new France which had been brought into being by the Resistance, he wrote in Combat, did not need the kind of “free” press in which “the opinion of one man depends on the wallet of another”. In the conditions of 1944, where the moneymen had been excluded and new titles which had emerged from the underground were dominating the market, the French press was at last living solely on the income from its sales. “France now has a press liberated from money,” he wrote. “That has not been the case for 100 years.”

If Camus excoriated the newspaper proprietors, he was equally insistent on the duties of journalists, who were above all, he wrote, people who were “supposed to have ideas” and whose duty was to inform their readers, not patronise them. To those like Pierre Lazareff, his former boss at the mass market Paris-Soir, who defended the old trade recipes and argued that “a journalist’s first duty is to be read”, he was angrily dismissive. “They tell us: ‘That's what the public wants.’ No, the public does not want it. It has been taught to want it for twenty years, which is not the same thing.” The reader of liberated France, chastened by the sacrifices of the last four years, was quite ready, he was sure, to accept a new tone from the press. “But if twenty papers, every day of the year, puff out around him the air of mediocrity and artifice, he will breathe that air, and he will not be able to do without it.”

Camus’s aversion to the popular press did not stem solely from a certain innate hauteur and moral fastidiousness (or priggishness as his enemies might have called it), though these were certainly prominent aspects of his character. He also strongly believed that “a country is often morally worth what its press is worth” and that the French press had failed the people in the 1930s. This is a view with which many historians concur. As the late Alfred Cobban wrote (in A History of Modern France): “The part played by journalists of the right ... in sapping the moral fibre and powers of resistance of the Third Republic can hardly be exaggerated.”

Nor did Camus think the danger had passed. In an interview given to Jean Daniel, director of the review Caliban, in 1951 he seemed to be expressing the fear that ‑ to lift a phrase from a later cultural commentator ‑ the French people might well be engaged in entertaining themselves to death:

Far from reflecting the state of mind of the public, most of the French press reflects only the state of mind of those who produce it. With just about one or two exceptions, sniggering, cheek and scandal form the staple of our press. If I were in the shoes of one of our newspaper bosses I wouldn’t be congratulating myself: everything that has the effect of degrading our culture shortens the road to servitude.

The young man to whom Camus gave that interview (and the author of the book under review) was subsequently to enjoy a glittering career in French journalism. Jean Daniel Bensaïd was born into a Sephardic Jewish family in Blida, a small garrison town near Algiers, in 1920. He was briefly active in the Resistance before joining the army and participating in the 1944 French campaign under General Leclerc. In 1946 he worked for a short while in the cabinet of Félix Gouin, the chairman of the provisional government, while contributing articles to Combat under the nom de plume Jean Daniel, which he was later to adopt permanently. Caliban, which was established with Camus’s help, was intended to be an intellectual review for a popular readership, politically situated “somewhere between the Communist Party and the SFIO [Section française de l’Internationale ouvrière, or socialists]”. Daniel later reported from Algeria for L’Express, denouncing the use of torture there by French forces. In 1963 he was chosen by Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post to act as the bearer of a conciliatory message from John F Kennedy to Fidel Castro; indeed he was in Castro’s company when news of Kennedy’s assassination came through. He was one of the founders, in 1964, of the commercially successful left-of-centre news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, which currently sells over half a million copies a week. At the age of eighty-five, Daniel is still its editorial director and a regular columnist.

The title of this short book could perhaps be seen as somewhat misleading. First, it is not a personal memoir of time spent with Camus; second, it does not in any systematic way set out, as the blurb certainly suggests, a professional ethics which might inspire contemporary journalists to resist the spirit of (these) times. Indeed, such a call to revolt from the pen of so eminent a figure as Jean Daniel would be somewhat surprising. What the book arguably does do, in addition to providing a brief commentary on the main landmarks of Camus’s literary career, is to demonstrate the ways in which he, as a writer with an interest in politics and society, often resisted the prevailing wisdom of his time (prevailing in the circles in which he moved, that is), and how that sometimes added to his reputation and sometimes did not.

Camus’s initial political adherence, in 1935, had been to the Communist Party, but an internal party report from 1937 or early 1938 on the situation in Algeria later found in Comintern files stated that it had become “necessary to proceed to purging certain Trotskyist agitators, like CAMUS ... who were developing a systematic campaign of lying against the directors of the P.C.F and its political line”. “Trotsykist” was of course at this period in communist history little more than a term automatically applied to any member unwilling to swallow the party line whole. Camus’s real crime had been to refuse to dilute his commitment to the social and political emancipation of Algerian Muslims at a time when the Communist Party leadership in metropolitan France was inclined to soft-pedal, or simply drop, any of its previous policies which might compromise the strategy of bringing the French Radical Party (the name is misleading) into its broad alliance against fascism. Camus had generally supported the aims of the leftist Popular Front government of Léon Blum in Paris (1936-38), but he was devastated by the success of Algerian supporters of the Radicals in blocking the limited moves towards extending the franchise towards Muslims proposed by the Blum-Violette plan.

In the immediate postwar period, Camus was one of a small but not insignificant group of French left-wing intellectuals that was non-communist but not anti-communist (entertainingly, if not always accurately, portrayed by Simone de Beauvoir in her novel Les Mandarins). He had never made an issue of his expulsion from the PCF. The role party members had played in the Resistance could not but be admired. The Soviet Union, having militarily defeated Nazi Germany, was at the height of its prestige. The Communist Party, far more than the socialists, commanded the allegiance of the industrial working class, seen almost universally on the left as the historic carriers of a mission to overthrow capitalist exploitation and establish the reign of reason and justice.

Yet in the political context of a general stampede leftwards in French society the socialist party in 1944 also appeared poised for recovery. Though it had ended the 1930s badly, with most of its deputies voting full powers to Marshal Pétain after the nation’s military debacle, it had bounced back during the occupation years. Many socialists had distinguished themselves in the Resistance, while their leader, Léon Blum, had written an important work of revisionist thinking while imprisoned in Germany. À l’échelle humaine (On the Human Scale) signalled a move away from the party’s traditions of Marxism, positivism and dogmatic anti-clericalism in favour of a less ideological, more humanist socialism which it was hoped might prove of broader appeal. Blum’s ideas, which opponents saw as dangerously close to British Labourism, and which were ably championed by party secretary Daniel Mayer, received an enthusiastic endorsement from Camus in Combat. (Unfortunately the Blum-Mayer line was to be reversed in 1946, with disastrous long-term consequences for the French socialist party.)

Camus and his closest collaborators left Combat in 1947. It had been for him a considerable adventure and a notable professional success, though now, in the different conditions of peacetime, after a damaging printers’ strike and increased competition from the establishment-backed Le Monde, the paper was experiencing some difficulty in making ends meet. The solution to its financial crisis, which was little calculated to appeal to Camus, the enemy of big capital, was to seek an investor.

For all its earnestness, and its often unorthodox view of what constituted ‑ and did not constitute ‑ news, Combat did not bore its readers. According to Raymond Aron, briefly a member of the editorial team and later France’s leading sociologist, it was simply “one of the best-written papers in the entire history of the French press”. Of the young men and women who worked there, most would later make a significant mark in French society, in literature, philosophy, political journalism, even cinema. Indeed Aron remarked of his first days in the cramped offices of the rue Réaumur that he had never encountered “so much grey matter in so little space”. This excellence was reflected chiefly in the paper’s political reporting and commentary, which found a wide audience at a time of crisis, renewal and uncertainty in French public life. But Combat’s coverage of books, theatre and film was also extensive and authoritative, while in spite of slender means it built up an impressive network of foreign correspondents, including Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.

After he left Combat, Camus largely withdrew from direct commentary on public affairs until 1955, when he accepted an invitation to write for L’Express, a news magazine on the model of Time which had been set up to back the decolonisation policies of prime minister Pierre Mendès-France. By this stage, Jean Daniel writes, Camus had long ceased to believe in the dogma of l’Algérie française, by which the colony was seen simply as an integral part of French territory. He wished for an end to the ever-escalating violence between the native population and the French and for a political solution which would maintain some links between France and Algeria while safeguarding the rights and security of non-Muslim citizens of the new state. To that end, according to Daniel’s account, he hoped that the republican voluntarism of Mendès-France would prevail over the maximalism of the European settlers and the Manicheism of the Parisian intellectuals. But in fact neither Mendès nor any of his immediate successors were able to put the cork back in the Algerian bottle. The main liberation organisation, the FLN, broadened its attacks from military targets to civilian ones, the French responded with torture and reprisal atrocities against Muslim civilians, the FLN intimidated or eliminated its rivals for leadership and over time began to demonstrate that it had the necessary political and military stamina to make the prospect of independence, at the end of what was destined to be an appallingly bloody struggle, a realistic one.

In this grinding and brutal process there was clearly no room for the values of “reason” and “humanity” represented by Camus, who was seen as a traitor by the colonists (pieds-noirs) and as a fool by the liberation fighters and their allies among the left of metropolitan France. When, in 1962, Charles de Gaulle decided to cut French losses and agree a negotiated independence for Algeria it seemed that the Manicheists among the communist and fellow-travelling Parisian intelligentsia had been proven right by events: no compromise had been possible, only victory for one side or the other. (“Manicheist”, with its religious connotations, is perhaps not the most accurate designation of this intellectual clan, which saw the Algerian war not as a struggle between good and evil but in Hegelian-Marxist terms as simply the inevitable working out of History, as colonialism was replaced by a higher, or at least newer, form of social and political organisation, in this case a rather inchoate amalgam of socialism and Arab nationalism.) Intellectually, Camus had always railed against the tyranny of absolutes, not least History with a capital “h”; on this occasion however, it seemed to get the better of him.

As has previously been noted, Camus was a late and perhaps rather reluctant anti-communist. His social background in Algiers was one of extreme (though not miserable) poverty. His mother, Catherine, who was to survive him, earned her living as a charwoman. His father, Lucien, died from wounds received at the Battle of the Marne in 1914, when Albert was one. For a political youth of his social origins in the 1930s communism was a natural choice: socialism was the creed of the anti-clerical white collar petty bourgeoisie, communism that of the workers. His expulsion from the party seems not to have embittered him, and when he did eventually cross swords with the communists and their allies in the latter half of the 1940s the issue at stake was not economic or social but humanitarian: could socialism (in the USSR) only be maintained at the cost of the suppression of all dissent and the imprisonment and murder of the dissidents? If so, it was not a socialism in which Camus could recognise his own values.

Camus’s somewhat lonely position on the Algerian crisis ‑ he broke with Jean Daniel among many others on the issue ‑ his refusal to welcome the FLN road to independence, provided his enemies on the left with an ideal stick with which to beat him. He was represented as a defender of colonialism, a man who could not emotionally break from the class of planters and exploiters into which he had been born. There is no doubt that Camus had an immensely strong emotional attachment to his origins and that this was a factor which made it difficult for him to line up with the anti-colonialist left. He had an equal difficulty, however, in identifying the particular social milieu from which he sprang as being in any sense exploiters and was particularly disinclined to take lectures on this matter from the more bourgeois elements of the left-wing intelligentsia in Paris. And certainly of equal weight to his attachment to his origins was his detestation of violence. Such subtleties, however, were lost in the ideological battles and score-settling of the late 1950s. A reported remark of his at the height of the FLN terrorist bombing campaign ‑ that he “preferred his mother to justice” ‑ was to be much used against him at the time, and after his death in 1960 against his reputation. But perhaps one should record the quotation in its entirety: “At this moment bombs are being planted in the trams in Algiers. My mother could be on one of those trams. If that is justice, I prefer my mother.”

Camus and most of his close collaborators left Combat in 1947, and though the title limped on into the 1970s it was never to be quite the same journalistic force. Raymond Aron felt that the paper’s main problem was that it did not fully satisfy any section of its readership. What readers want from a newspaper, that is from their newspaper, he later wrote, is not so much instruction or information as justification, that is to say a more eloquent statement of their prejudices than they can manage themselves. For all that, Camus always insisted that Combat had not been a failure, that it had made its mark and when the time was right it, or something like it, would make its mark again. In the meantime it would be remembered, in one way or another: “Combat was a success. It has not disappeared. It is still giving certain journalists a bad conscience.”

But the time for another Combat did not come. French society moved beyond its postwar institutional crisis, beyond the urgent existential questions as to what kind of a nation and society it would choose to be and back to a preoccupation with the humdrum and the everyday. It is possible that many of the readers of 1944 and 1945 were by 1947 becoming rather tired of novelty and excitement, and perhaps also less enthusiastic for the stern imperatives of critical thought and active citizenship which Combat continued to urge on them. What Camus and his colleagues had been engaged in producing – and it may well have been possible only in the exceptional historical context in which it occurred – was neither a paper which “amused” nor one which massaged its readers’ prejudices but an undertaking of a completely different order, based on a certain conception of an informed democracy and an engagement, almost a partnership, with its readers to look at politics and society full in the face in order to make the correct choices for its better functioning.

This respect for, and bond with, the readers can seem very far away today: “the chattering classes” is one of the favourite clichés currently employed by our brightest and most highly paid columnists when they wish to designate those who seem to them to have too much concern for the problems of society (and perhaps too little for money). But who indeed are these chattering classes except their readers – and perhaps themselves?

“Cynicism” is a word that irresistibly pops into the mind when thinking or talking seriously about journalism, though of course it has no universally agreed single meaning. It is used by Camus to designate those (the “cynical amusers”) who have no respect for the nobility, or potential nobility, of their trade and who he felt must also despise their readers. In this category, for example, he firmly placed his former boss Pierre Lazareff of Paris-Soir. Others may have argued that Lazareff was a genius, having almost single-handedly invented a new and very successful form of popular journalism, but Camus was not to be swayed: how could one admire someone who marshalled all his intelligence and skill to produce well-turned rubbish? Lazareff, he told his colleagues, was “the Napoleon of Shit”.

Another type of cynic, or perhaps more accurately sceptic, is Sébastien Fontenelle, a blogger on Le Monde Citoyen who, in a brief posting on Jean Daniel’s book (and a gushing review of it by Max Gallo in Daniel’s magazine), expresses blank amazement that the co-proprietor of a publication packed with breathless endorsements of the latest must-have creations from Gucci and Vuitton (“price on demand”) can still speak grandly of a “journalism of resistance” and, with apparently straight-faced approval, quote the uncompromising words of the ascetic Camus: “There are some of us who will not allow misery to be discussed by those who do not know what they are talking about.”

It is true that the once fairly clear dividing lines between newspapers and magazines which are serious and those which are trivial, between the “quality” and the popular press, have become much more clouded in recent decades, and if the serious is still allowed to survive, it must frequently be content to bed down in the same nest as the banal, the vulgar and the silly. On the positive side, any consideration of the state of the French press in the 1930s must banish the notion that we are experiencing a simple linear decline. Serious newspapers of a traditional cut still survive, though more densely perhaps on the European continent than in “these islands”.

Camus’s notion that a newspaper could live without capital or advertising revenue, solely on the income from its sales, is unthinkable today. And there is certainly a tendency among newspaper managements, though one that is resisted to a greater or lesser degree by working journalists and editorial executives, to exert pressure on content to make it more amenable to the concerns and interests – consumption, leisure, fashion, health narcissism etc. – of those crucial “market segments” at whom the bulk of advertising is aimed.

Albert Camus made a distinguished, even brilliant, contribution to French newspaper culture in three separate phases of his career: as a crusading investigative reporter for Alger Républicain and Soir Républicain, as an editorialist and leader of public opinion for Combat and as a polemical columnist for L’Express. Yet in spite of his many protestations to the contrary one must reluctantly conclude that he was neither psychologically suited to operating in what is called “the real world” nor cut out for the win-some, lose-some experience of working in journalism over the long haul. For all that, there is a certain nobility to his austere and, it would now seem archaic, vision of service, most poignantly expressed perhaps in the final farewell he wrote to the readers of Combat: “There are many ways of making one’s fortune in journalism. As for us, I don’t need to say that we arrived poor in this newspaper and are also leaving it poor. Our sole wealth has always been in the respect we bore for our readers. And if it is the case that that respect was reciprocated, then that was, and will remain, our only luxury.”

Albert Camus’s writings for Alger Républican, Soir Républicain, Combat and L’Express are published in three volumes in the series “Cahiers Albert Camus” by nrf/Gallimard. A history of Combat from 1941 to 1974, À la vie, à la mort, has been written by Yves-Marc Ajchenbaum and published by Le Monde Editions. A definitive study of Camus as journalist has yet to be written.


Enda O'Doherty is joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books and a journalist. This essay was first published in Issue 1 of the drb, in Spring 2007.