Camus and life in Combat

 

For Albert Camus, the driving force behind the great French Resistance newspaper, 'Combat', the role of the press was to enlighten its readers - a point still relevant to today.

The accusation that the prestigious Paris newspaper, Le Monde, far from being the model of authority, rectitude and austere objectivity it is generally assumed to be, is in fact a nest of cynicism, sharp practice, crooked accounting and abuse of power has caused something of a stir among intellectual circles in France.

Such shocking allegations, in Pierre Péan and Philippe Cohen's The Hidden Face of Le Monde, published in late February, have of course been angrily rejected by the newspaper's management and are to be the subject of a legal action.

Whatever the outcome of that action for Le Monde's pocket and reputation, the affair raises the question: to what degree does any great institution of the press have the right to be regarded, or regard itself, as a beacon of public morality. It also recalls the peculiar historical circumstances of Le Monde's foundation in 1944 at a time when there was a concerted attempt to remake the entire French press, largely discredited by its wartime collaboration with the Nazis, in a more honest, even heroic, mould.

The newspapers of the 1930s were scarcely ornaments of the much vaunted values of French civilisation. Their speciality was coarse abuse and libel, particularly of politicians of the left and centre-left. They were also shamelessly up for sale to business interests large and small, while coverage of international affairs could be easily influenced by the slush funds kept by foreign embassies in Paris. Not surprisingly, many of its leading practitioners had little scruple, after 1940, about working for the Nazis.

Following the liberation of Paris in 1944, all papers in existence throughout the occupation were closed down, and their premises and plant allocated to the journalists of the Resistance, who had risked deportation and death to publish clandestine propaganda sheets during what were now called "the dark years".

One such publication was Combat, the mouthpiece of the Resistance formation of the same name. Among the small team which in June, 1944, took over the offices of the occupying army's official newspaper, the Pariser Zeitung, as fighting continued in the Paris streets was the young Algerian novelist and playwright, Albert Camus, who was soon to become Combat's intellectual driving force and chief editorialist.

If Le Monde, established in December of the same year on General de Gaulle initiative, was conceived as a replacement for the pre-war Le Temps, and thus as the paper of record of the political establishment, Combat's ambitions ran in another direction, as its masthead motto, "From Resistance to Revolution", indicated. Just exactly what this revolution was to consist of was to remain vague, but that word has always had a more positive emotional charge in France, even among those little enamoured of the sight of blood on the streets and bourgeois hanging from the lamp-posts.

What it did certainly involve was an assault on the power of capital, in society in general but particularly in relation to the press. For Camus, money - the big money of industrial corporations and wealthy family dynasties - was seldom without the whiff of sulphur. He continually hammered home in Combat the need to liberate the press from its power and argued passionately against the kind of "free" market in which "the opinion of one man depends on the wallet of another".

In the new conditions of 1944, he wrote, the French press was finally living solely on the income from its sales. "France now has a press liberated from money. That has not been the case for 100 years."

The ferocity with which Camus and his colleagues held these views derived from their understanding of the political role played by newspapers in the 1930s. If, as he argued, a country is often morally worth what its press is worth, then it was little wonder France had been so easily overcome by the Nazis in 1940. Most historians tend to agree with this view. As Alfred Cobban writes: "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."

Politically, Camus and the Combat team espoused an idealistic and rather vague non-communist socialism. But they were not economists or even political theorists. The revolution Combat stood for was, above all, a moral one.If this meant demanding standards from French politicians they had in the past never dreamed of meeting, it imposed even higher demands on journalists.

The task of the press, Camus insisted, is not to please its readers but to enlighten them. A journalist, he wrote, is someone "who is supposed to have ideas" and who must respect, rather than patronise or exploit, his readers. Any journalist "who does not judge himself every day", he insisted, is not worthy of his trade.

There were those, of course, who found this tone a little haughty, even priggish, and insisted that the good old journalism of gossip, scandal, diversion and character assassination also had its place. Camus did not agree: "They tell us that's what the public wants. No, the public does not want that. It has been taught for 20 years to want it, but that is not the same thing."

For all its earnestness and its often unorthodox view of what constituted ­ and did not constitute ­ news, Combat, however, 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 history of the French press". Of the men and women who worked there ­ nearly all with a background in the Resistance ­ 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 in the rue Réaumur that he had never encountered "so much grey matter in so little space".

This excellence was reflected chiefly in Combat's political reporting and commentary, which found a wide audience at a time of great renewal, change and uncertainty in French public life. But the paper's coverage of books, theatre and film was also extensive and authoritative, and it built up an impressive network of foreign correspondents, including Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.

What it did not do was cover what the French call faits divers and modern news editors "a good yarn". The opening of the trial of the notorious serial killer, Dr Marcel Petiot, was given the briefest of accounts, followed by a stern notice to readers that they would find no further details of this squalid affair in Combat. Nor was the paper much concerned with "the scoop". To inform well, not to inform first, was the ideal.

By 1947, however, some of the sheen had gone from the paper's performance. Camus, suffering from a tubercular condition and drawn away by the demands of family and literary work, was no longer a constant presence. Political differences also began to emerge. While his main collaborators, Pascal Pia and Albert Ollivier, were increasingly attracted to Gaullism, Camus remained a man of the left, closest to the outlook of the Socialist Party - "with all the disappointments that entails", he added ruefully.

It is also probable the French people were becoming less enthusiastic for the stern imperatives of critical thought and active citizenship which Combat continued to urge upon them.

The paper, like most of the other political titles which had emerged from the Resistance, was now rapidly losing sales. A printers' strike, which lasted for more than a month, deepened the financial crisis. When a "saviour" came on the scene in summer of 1947, he appeared in a guise unlikely to appeal to Camus, the sworn enemy of big capital. Henri Smadja, a shady Tunisian businessman, was allowed to take control of Combat. As the new power came in one door, Camus andmost of his collaborators left by the other. Combat continued to limp on until the 1970s, but it was never the same newspaper.

For Raymond Aron, Combat's chief problem was that it did not fully satisfy any section of its readership. What readers want from a paper, that is from their paper, he suggests, 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. This is certainly cynical, but not without truth.

What Camus was engaged in ­ and it may well have been possible only in the exceptional historical context in which it took place ­ was an undertaking of a completely different order, based on a certain conception of an informed democracy and an engagement, almost a partnership, with one's readers to look at politics and society in order to make the correct choices for its better functioning.

This was no doubt an austere view of a newspaper's role, but one which worked, at least for a time. What Camus would have made of today's press, in which even quality titles, at least in the Anglo-Saxon world, feel they must bow down before the gods of consumption and celebrity, it is perhaps better not to ponder too closely.

Importantly, he was not embittered by his experience and continued to regard Combat as having been a success, as is clear from the tone of his final farewell to its readers. "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."