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.
Albert Camus’s final involvement with the press, through his L’Express column in 1955/56, brought him back to the subject that had first possessed him as a 25-year-old writing for Alger Républicain, the quest for social justice in France’s north African colony and for reconciliation between its native and colonial inhabitants.
By the mid-1950s the prospects for such a reconciliation were poor, and getting poorer. Camus’s desire for a solution which would empower Algerian Muslims yet retain a link with France pleased no constituency and increasingly isolated him among the left-wing intelligentsia, which broadly endorsed the terrorist campaign of the FLN. As a young man he had been expelled from the communist party, at least partially because his militancy in favour of the Muslim population did not fit the then current party line. Now the communists saw a chance for revenge, portraying him as a reactionary and imperialist. His declaration that he “preferred his mother to justice” was to be deliberately misinterpreted and much quoted against him. The longer version of this remark however explains a little better what precisely he meant: “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.”
In his long though intermittent career as a journalist, Camus campaigned on poverty in Algeria, against fascism and anti-Semitism, for a free France, for a more intelligent, moral and independent press, against the death penalty, against the hydrogen bomb and for a negotiated settlement to the bitter conflict in his homeland.
To all of these causes he brought his formidable gifts of calm analysis and moral lucidity. If, finally, he did not find the press to be what he had hoped it would be, there is nevertheless a certain nobility in his somewhat austere vision of service, best expressed perhaps in his farewell 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.”