Nobel literature laureate Camus also had a distinguished career as a journalist
Opinion: Writer and philosopher wished to liberate the press from the power of money
Albert Camus: formidable gifts of analysis and lucidity
The clandestine Resistance newssheet Combat published 58 issues during the German occupation of France, which appeared sporadically as conditions allowed. When, after the Liberation, it was established as a “proper” daily newspaper and sold openly on the streets, the first issue nevertheless bore the number 59, in tribute to colleagues who had been shot or deported to the Reich as forced labourers.
Speaking to his fellow Frenchmen and Frenchwomen in this issue, Combat’s editor-in-chief sounded a surprisingly cautious note: rather than celebrating the country’s deliverance from the shame of les années noires (the black years) and looking to a brighter future, he chose to highlight the deficiencies of the democratic pre-war era when, in his words, France may have had the appearances of liberty but was in fact a society “caught in the tight grip of money”.
That editor, Albert Camus, was born 100 years ago today. Celebrated as a novelist, essayist, playwright and philosopher, he is perhaps less well known as a journalist. Yet he made a distinguished contribution to French newspaper culture at three distinct stages of his career: as a crusading investigative reporter in his native Algeria; in the immediate postwar period as editorialist with Combat; and in the 1950s, as a columnist for L’Express (a French version of Time magazine).
Camus and his colleagues in Combat felt that the French public, chastened by its wartime humiliations, was ready for a new and better kind of newspaper, far removed from the coarse, trivial and corrupt press of the 1930s. Many of the practitioners of that journalism had later become collaborators, and as such were barred from playing any part in the postwar press, which was essentially composed of titles that had emerged from the Resistance. “France,” wrote Camus, “now has a press liberated from money. That has not been the case for 100 years.”
For all its political and moral earnestness, Combat did not, in the crisis years of 1944 and 1945, bore its readers. One contributor, the sociologist Raymond Aron, found it to be “one of the best-written papers in the entire history of the French press”, adding that he had never anywhere found “so much grey matter in such little space” as among the young journalists who crowded into the paper’s cramped offices on the rue Réaumur.
By 1947 however sales were dramatically on the slide, readers having perhaps become fatigued by the demands for active citizenship and moral engagement Combat’s editor continued to press upon them. When a money man was brought in to rescue the title Camus and his closest collaborators walked out.