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On January 22, 1956, the residents of Algiers, abandoning their usual Sunday pastimes of strolling the boulevards and gathering at cafés, instead piled into the city’s central square, the Place du Gouvernement. On one side stood a stormy crowd of European settlers, known as pieds-noirs, whose leader, a bar owner and brawler named Jo Ortiz, vowed that Algeria was and would always be part of France. On the other side of the square thronged thousands of Arabs and Berbers kept in check by the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), the clandestine movement dedicated to Algeria’s independence from France. Dividing the two hostile groups was a cordon of French gendarmes.
The crowd flowed against the ramparts of the plaza’s Cercle du Progrès, a meeting hall straddling two worlds: behind spilled the Kasbah, the ancient Muslim district laced by alleys and passages; in front sprawled Bab el Oued, a working-class neighborhood of Spanish immigrants. Within the hall, pieds-noirs and Arabs sat in tight rows and craned their heads toward the hall’s stage. On the dais sat two pieds-noirs—a Catholic priest and Protestant minister—and a local Muslim notable. But these three men were stage scenery for the man who embodied the increasingly forlorn hope that their two worlds might avoid a collision. Stubbing a Gauloise under his shoe, gripping the text of his speech that called for a civilian truce, a drawn and waxen-faced Albert Camus walked to the podium, chained to a task no less absurd than the one the gods had assigned to Sisyphus.
Still, the Greek gods had never demanded Sisyphus’ head. Since his arrival in Algiers, Camus had received several death threats. Now, as he stood behind the podium, he heard calls for his death from Ortiz’s red-faced mob. As the bedlam outside grew, the brawny childhood friends who formed Camus’ impromptu bodyguard—he called them his “gorillas”—kept glancing at the doors. For years Camus had insisted that Algeria belonged to the Arab and Berber peoples no less than to the pieds-noirs. But as he prepared to speak, he feared each side had already concluded that Algeria belonged to them alone.
The killing began in 1945, when Arab nationalists in the town of Sétif held a demonstration marking France’s liberation from Germany. Someone fired a shot; guns and knives replaced banners and flags; rampaging protesters overwhelmed the small police force and murdered more than one hundred French residents. As massacres go, this was especially horrific: women’s breasts were sliced off; men’s genitals were stuffed into their mouths. France’s response was equally appalling: organized repression and vigilante violence seized the region for the next several days. More than fifteen thousand Arabs and Berbers were killed, often in grisly fashion.
Camus had been in Algeria shortly before these bloody events, visiting his family in Algiers, whom he had not seen since 1942. He had also planned to visit other parts of Algeria to study the conditions of the Arab and Berber populations. As a muckraking reporter for a local newspaper in 1939, Camus had filed a series of shocking articles on the abysmal condition of the Berbers. But he was no longer an obscure French–Algerian journalist: publication of The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus had transformed their author into a world-renowned philosopher of the absurd, just as his editorship of the newspaper Combat had made him the voice of the French Resistance.
These changes, however, did not efface Camus’ attachment to his native Algeria—on the contrary. Surrounded by the intellectuals of Paris’s Left Bank, Camus played up his origins, speaking street argot, strutting the street walk of Algiers in the company of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. If it was an act, it was one driven by Camus’ abiding sense of exile when away from Algeria. While Camus’ affection remained unchanged for the Algeria from which “he had never recovered,” Algeria was no longer the country of Camus’ childhood. The experiences of war and liberation galvanized the political expectations of Arabs and Berbers, while hardening the resistance of European settlers. The sails of Arab nationalism were filling, and French Algerians feared the coming storm they had largely created. Having throttled interwar efforts to extend the franchise to an indigenous population that outnumbered them ten to one, the pieds-noirs continued to resist compromise after 1945.
Unlike most pieds-noirs, Camus held that the credo of French republicanism applied no less to the colonized as to the colonizers in Algeria. This conviction hardened during his travels through Algeria in 1945. Back in Paris shortly before the massacre at Sétif, Camus forecast the nationalist explosion. Little had changed in the conditions of the rural population since his earlier series of reports: too little food for too many mouths, too many republican ideals given the lie by selfish pieds-noirs and feckless French administrators. The math of rationing was simple: pieds-noirs were entitled to three hundred grams of bread per day, while Arabs and Berbers usually received less than a hundred and fifty. This staggering inequality was imposed not only on a people who were “not inferior except in regard to the conditions in which they must live,” but who had “spent the past two years fighting for the liberation of France.” France’s duty was clear: it had to “quell the cruelest of hungers and heal inflamed hearts.”
Camus reminded the readers of Combat that, while the crisis was most immediately economic and material, its roots were political and historical. For more than a century, France had failed to apply its democratic principles to Algeria’s native peoples. For this reason, France would have to “conquer Algeria a second time.” This provocative declaration underscored a prosaic truth: the French Republic’s ideals reached no further than the European neighborhoods in Algeria. If Algeria were to remain part of France, France had to reconquer it by the systematic and sincere application of the rights, duties, and benefits of citizenship. Ultimately, Camus declared, “Our feverish and unbridled desire for power and expansion will never be excused unless we make up for them by unwavering attention to the pursuit of justice and the spirit of self-sacrifice. Despite the repressive actions we have just taken in North Africa, I am convinced that the era of Western imperialism is over.”
Camus grasped far better than most of his contemporaries that Combat’s slogan, From Resistance to Revolution, had inspired not just men and women living under the Nazi occupation, but also those living under French colonial rule. The French civilizing mission could only be fulfilled, he announced, by bringing “more complete liberation to everyone it subjugates.” If France failed to do so, it would “reap hatred like all vanquishers who prove themselves incapable of moving beyond victory.” His warning not to recreate France’s experience under the Nazi occupation was remarkable: Few on the Left, much less the Right, cast French actions in such terms. More remarkable was his call for justice because of the blood that had just been shed. “Unfortunate and innocent French victims have lost their lives, and this crime in itself is inexcusable. But I hope that we will respond to murder with nothing other than justice, so as to avoid doing irreparable harm.” Yet irreparable harm may already have been done: by 1956, when Camus spoke at the Cercle du Progès, French and Arabs had shackled themselves to an infernal logic—civilian casualties were not collateral damage of war, but its very goal.
In Camus’ novel The Plague, one of the characters, Tarrou, does not distinguish among those killed by the deadly disease. “All I maintain,” he tells the novel’s narrator, Dr. Rieux, “is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.” He quickly adds: “That may sound simple to the point of childishness; I can’t judge if it’s simple, but I know it’s true.” In the mid-1950s, Camus had used his public celebrity to apply Tarrou’s ethic to Algeria’s worsening situation. In an open letter to an Algerian friend, Camus acknowledged that the spiral of massacre and counter-massacre had pushed him to the “verge of despair.” How could it be otherwise? “We know nothing of the human heart,” he wrote, “if we imagine that the Algerian French can now forget these massacres.” But he did not stop there: “And it is another form of madness to imagine that repression can make the Arab masses feel confidence and esteem for France.”
Yet neither community could will the other’s disappearance. The “French fact,” Camus declared, “cannot be eliminated in Algeria, and the dream of a sudden disappearance of France is childish.” No less puerile, though, was the hope of some French Algerians to “cancel out, silence and subjugate” nine million Muslims. French and Muslims, he insisted, were “condemned to live together.” This fact, Camus felt, meant that men of good will on both sides had to risk death to secure a space where the “exchange of views is still possible.”
In 1955, Camus feverishly built the case for a civilian truce in a series of editorials in the liberal French journal L’Express. In calling for a roundtable at which all the factions would sit, Camus showed his hand: the antagonists, sitting across from one another, would have to attend to one another: to see and hear their fellow human beings. This might, Camus thought, give a “meaning to the fighting—and perhaps render it vain.” His onrush of editorials climaxed in early January 1956 with a proposal for a civilian truce. Deploring the deaths of French and Muslim civilians, condemning both sides’ habit of holding only the other side responsible, Camus declared: “Soon only the dead will be innocent.” He demanded that both sides denounce the violence aimed at civilians. Pieds-noirs had to “recognize what is just in [their] adversary’s cause, as well as recognize what is not just in their own repressive measures.” As for the FLN, it had to “disavow the murdering of innocent lives.” Both sides had to agree to spare civilians: “We must all demand a truce—a truce that will allow us to arrive at solutions, a truce regarding the massacre of civilians by both sides.”
Camus finally rallied his reader to the cause of French and Algerian moderates—“movements [are] taking shape everywhere”—dedicated to dialogue. Camus’ desperation got the better of him: “everywhere” was limited to precious few places in Algeria, while “movements” was, in fact, a single and frail movement. Camus was aware of this movement’s fragility for he had himself been in contact with it for several days. Its nucleus was the Association of Friends of Arabic Theater, pieds-noirs and Muslims who shared a love of theater. Among the members were several of Camus’ lycée and university friends: Jean de Maisonseul, Charles Poncet, and Louis Miquel. On the Muslim side was, most importantly, Amar Ouzegane. Twenty years earlier, Ouzegane and Camus both belonged to the Algerian Communist Party, and both were eventually expulsed from its ranks. But by 1955, unknown to Camus, Ouzegane had, like the other Muslim participants in the theater group, gone over to the FLN.
When the group contacted Camus with their idea of joint political action in Algiers, he agreed. But preparations for the public forum were hardly promising: at a meeting on January 19, an Arab schoolteacher blurted out: “To hell with the civil truce! What we need is absolute and unconditional independence now.” Stunned, Camus turned to Miquel: “What the hell am I doing here? We’re screwed. Do they really want us to drop our pants?” At the same time, a friendly police official warned the group that pied-noir extremists were busy forging tickets: they planned to mob the hall and disrupt the proceedings. The group quickly printed new tickets, while the Arab participants assured Camus that they would guarantee security. Violence seemed inevitable; more than once, Camus considered canceling the event.
Yet he persisted, despite his justified suspicions of the FLN’s role in his public appearance, despite his shock upon seeing how radicalized both sides had become, despite his fear that Paris was willfully blind to the depth of the problem. True despair is not born, he believed, when facing a stubborn opponent or in the exhaustion of unequal combat. Instead, despair comes “when we no longer know why we are struggling—or, indeed, if struggle is necessary.”
At the Cercle de Progrès, Camus met despair, though he refused to name it. He believed both sides were right; the problem, tragically, was that each side claimed sole possession of the truth. They had lied about themselves, lied about their opponents, and were committing real crimes, drowning Algeria in one another’s blood. Outside, the chants from Ortiz’s mob grew louder, while a great murmur like a basso continuo rose from the Muslims. Stones began to rattle against the windows.
Camus began to speak: “This meeting had to take place,” he declared, “to show at least that an exchange of views is still possible.” He asserted that he was a private, not public, figure. But with war seeping into the realm of the private, he and his colleagues had stepped forward, in the knowledge that “building, teaching, creating [are] functions of life and of generosity that could not be pursued in the realm of hatred and bloodshed.” We must not deny, Camus continued, historical and demographic facts. In Algeria “there are a million Frenchmen who have been here for a century, millions of Muslims, either Arabs or Berbers, who have been here for centuries, and several rigorous religious communities.” Yet extremists were trying to deny this reality by terrorizing not just the other side, but also the moderate members of their own ethnic groups. If both sides did not open a dialogue, the Frenchman will make up his mind “to know nothing of the Arab, even though he feels somewhere within him, that the Arab’s claim to dignity is justified, and the Arab makes up his mind to know nothing of the Frenchman, even though he feels, somewhere within him, that the Algerian French likewise have a right to security and dignity on our common soil.” If each and every Frenchman and Muslim did not make an honest “effort to think over his adversary’s motives,” the violence would carry Algeria away.
Camus paused as a hum rose from the audience. Looking across the hall, Camus saw that Ferhat Abbas, the last great moderate voice of Algerian nationalism, had just arrived. Like Camus, Abbas was a product of the French republican school system; like Camus, Abbas continued to believe that the principles informing this education must be applied to all men and women, Arab and pied-noir alike; like Camus, Abbas believed the two peoples had no choice but to coexist. As Abbas made his way to the stage, Camus met him halfway and the two embraced. For a moment, a blast of applause overwhelmed the gathering storm outside; for a moment, Camus’ plea for a civilian truce seemed possible.
But the furies outside the hall seemed to have sensed the momentary surge of optimism. The pieds-noirs redoubled their efforts: they launched heavier volleys of stones at the building, shattering several windows, all the while cursing Camus and his associates as traitors. Camus spoke quickly, fearing the mob was about to burst into the hall. How absurd, he announced, to appear in this tumult, asking for nothing more than that “a handful of innocent victims [i.e., civilians on both sides] be spared.” But his words were muffled by the uproar. Though the committee had planned a public discussion after the speech, Camus asked that it be cancelled: it seemed clear that the conference would soon give way to disorder and much worse. The visitor left the hall as he had arrived, surrounded by his cordon of “gorillas.”
When Camus flew back to Paris later that day, he insisted that he would “sacrifice everything to the truce” and that the meeting was just the first step. But he also confessed he did not know what the next step could possibly be. For now, he admitted, “I have only doubts.” Camus’ doubts ripened into despair when, a few months after his appearance at the Cercle du Progès, Abbas himself joined the FLN.