The Colonial Contradictions of Albert Camus

French writer Albert Camus has become an iconic figure, celebrated by everyone from Emmanuel Macron to George W. Bush. But the idealized public image of Camus as a liberal humanist does not reckon honestly with the impact of French colonialism on his work.

Albert Camus in 1957. (Wikimedia Commons)

What do George W. Bush, an African-American prisoner sentenced to death in Indiana, the entire French political class (from the extreme right to the Anarchist Federation), Hollywood stars, and anti-colonialist Arab intellectuals have in common? They have all laid claim to the legacy of Albert Camus.

Camus is a fascinating character in his own right, who left behind an important body of writing, and the story of his life sheds light on a crucial period in French and Algerian history. But his cult status — and the seemingly contradictory readings of his work — make Camus very much a man of our own time, too.

Betwixt and Between

Camus (1913–1960) was a French novelist, philosopher, journalist, essayist, and playwright, born in French Algeria to a family of white settlers (called Pieds-Noirs in French). Although he came from a modest social background, Camus emerged as a major literary figure of his generation, and received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, three years before his death in a car accident.

Camus himself was politically engaged from a young age. He joined the French Communist Party in 1935, although he left the party a couple of years later. Toward the end of World War II, he became active in the intellectual resistance to the German occupation of France.

He initially enjoyed a close friendship with the philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre, whom Camus first met in Paris in 1943. But this ended in a very public and acrimonious dispute over the questions of Marxism and colonialism after Camus published his essay The Rebel.

Algeria’s War of Independence between 1954 and 1962 plunged Camus into a deep personal and political conflict. He gradually withdrew from public life, but continued to write, and was at work on his last novel at the time of his death (an autobiographical work published posthumously as The First Man).

Bonheur and the Popular Front

Today, Camus is everywhere: in films, in TV series on Netflix and Amazon, in magazines, in theaters, in editorials, on T-shirts — and even in books. Soberly invoked by all kinds of people, always in a tone that is both reverent and admiring, Camus is often used simply to show off.

But many also cite him to conceal France’s — and by extension Europe’s — imperial history, through reference to a cultural icon who is quickly becoming a mythical character. Sometimes the myth is deployed sincerely — in much the same way that a believer would invoke a saint — but often the approach is more cynical.

One of the author’s more prominent self-proclaimed “fans” is Emmanuel Macron. Before his election to the French presidency, Macron often confessed to friendly journalists his admiration for Camus, and especially for his lyrical essay “Nuptials in Tipasa.”

Yet this famous essay found its source precisely in everything that Macron is striving to destroy. To put it another way, the vocation of a figure like Macron is the suppression of hard-fought social gains that were the necessary condition for the very essay he praises.

The strikes and factory occupations of May–June 1936 drastically changed the lives of most French workers. The negotiations between the strikers, the bosses, and the Popular Front government led to substantial salary increases. More importantly, the agreement inaugurated a new way of life, with reduced working hours (from forty-eight to forty), and two weeks of guaranteed paid holidays a year.

Everything changed as a result: the French people discovered the countryside, the beaches, and the mountains, mostly from the saddle of a bicycle. Shortly afterward, in “Nuptials in Tipasa,” which he began in 1937, the young student and office worker Albert Camus developed his theory of bonheur. For Camus, this was a word stronger than happiness: it referred to fleeting moments — one day, no more, he specified — of intense communion with nature.

The Camusian concept of bonheur expressed this new reality that resulted from a profound social upheaval and translated it into literature. The author’s day in the sun in the small town of Tipasa, which he conceived of as a temporary experience, are the holidays or weekends as we know them, codified in literature for the first time.

A Colonial Wage Index

However, the commitment of Camus to social issues was ultimately subordinated to another ideology. In an article from October 1938, “Speculation Against Social Laws,” Camus, as a journalist and columnist in the left-wing daily Alger Républicain, kept a watchful eye on the tangible achievements of May–June 1936. He was quite rightly outraged by the fact that rising prices had cancelled out wage increases, and proposed that wages be indexed to the cost of living.

Camus also drew attention to the disparity between wage increases for what he called “indigenous (non-Moroccan) laborers” (whom we will call Algerians) and “European workers” (whom we will call settlers). Camus noted that the wages of settlers increased by 20 percent, while those of Algerian workers increased by 60 percent.

However, Camus did not make this point in order to question the blatant injustice of wage inequality between the two groups. After the strikes, the Algerians earned 2,30 F per hour, the settlers 7,20 F. He took this for granted. What shocked Camus was the fact that the settlers did not receive an increase of 60 percent like the Algerians. He wanted to maintain the inequality between colonizer and colonized.

Camus defended the achievements of the strikes of 1936 and the colonial system. He played a twofold role, translating new realities into art, while tacitly endorsing the old colonial order.

A Useful Saint

This is not the author imagined by politicians and publishers of glossy magazines and leather-bound editions. For these people, the figure of Camus should be synonymous with a good conscience. He is a gold mine to be exploited for their own profitable causes. A quotation from Camus is a seal of authenticity that is solemnly uttered with false modesty — a sign of easy erudition, a way of claiming a humanism that is as vague as it is ostentatious.

Almost the whole of French society has made Camus into a secular saint. With rare unanimity, the literary, political, and cultural fields have come together to craft an image for the French public of Camus as a humanist, a philosopher, an anti-colonialist activist, a resistance fighter of the first hour, a man who loved justice above all else, and a great writer.

In France, history is often taught as a fable in which the motherland appears as a benevolent conqueror, with Camus as the emblematic hero and Jean-Paul Sartre as his nefarious foil.

Although Sartre publicly condemned Soviet interventions in Eastern Europe, he is caricatured today as an unconditional supporter of the former USSR and all things totalitarian. Camus, on the other hand, is praised as a clear-sighted humanist who was ahead of his time.

This vision — in the literal sense of the term — helps the elites of France to present a benign account of its imperial past and to cover up its neocolonial present. If we discard this image and look at Camus as he actually was, a more complex figure emerges: a ward of the French state, torn between the egalitarianism of the Republic and his visceral attachment to French Algeria.

This approach — which must include a brief overview of France’s brutal occupation of Algeria for nearly a hundred and fifty years — is essential for understanding Camus and the ideological pressures that shape his legacy today.

The Conquest of Algeria

Camus was born in 1913 in Algeria, a country that had been under French rule since 1830. France’s colonization took place largely in two phases: one was the conquest, which lasted until 1870, during which France committed atrocities on a massive scale. The obliteration of entire villages with the massacre of their inhabitants, the destruction of crops, the killing of cattle — these were routine practices endorsed by the French state and almost all public figures (including currently revered ones like Alexis de Tocqueville).

In 1870, civilian settlers began to take over French Algeria. They ruled by means of a series of racist laws known as the “Indigenous Code,” virtually enslaving the Algerians and depriving them of all the legal protections and rights afforded to European settlers. Faced with intermittent but powerful rebellions, some in the metropole favored minor reforms that would afford limited rights to a privileged minority of Algerians, in order to divide the Algerian masses from their elites.

Camus from a young age had been in favor of such reforms, the latest incarnation of which was the 1936 Blum–Viollette bill, named after the Popular Front premier Léon Blum and the former governor-general of Algeria, Maurice Viollette. Their proposal would have granted some rights to a tiny minority of Algerians. Messali Hadj, a founding father of Algerian nationalism, rejected the bill at the time for what it was: a classic move in the colonial playbook, which would have created an Algerian elite allied with and beholden to the colonial rulers.

Nevertheless, in April 1937, at the age of twenty-three, Camus coauthored a manifesto in support of this project. In this manifesto, one can discern his reasoning: granting more rights to the Algerian elites would mean enlisting them on his side: “(. . .) far from harming the interests of France, this project serves them in the most up-to-date way, in that it will make the Arab people see the face of humanity that France must wear.”

This modest attempt to reform the colonial system resulted in failure. The Blum–Viollette bill met with threats of resignation from almost every single mayor of French Algerian towns and cities; as a result, it was not even considered. Soon afterward, Camus abandoned direct political action.

Humanitarian Rhapsody

It was only two years later that Camus once again tried to influence settler public opinion, now in his capacity as a journalist. In a series of articles based on his travels in Kabylia that were published in June 1939, we again find Camus grappling with his ultimately impossible task: drafting humanitarianism to the rescue of colonialism.

Let’s take a brief look at one of these articles, “Greece in Rags.” Camus recounted his encounter with young Kabyle children who asked him for food; he described their outstretched hands, “emaciated through rags.” Then, he was shown an emaciated and “ragged” young girl whose grandfather said to Camus: “If I could keep her clean and fed, wouldn’t she be as beautiful as any French girl?” At the sight of her, Camus exclaimed, “I felt guilty,” adding: “I should not have been the only one.”

The desire to remove this Kabyle girl from her abject poverty so that she could be “like any French girl” reflects both the reward and the goal of charity: inclusion in the colonial order and belonging to the French family. He also explained to his readers that it was in the interest of the colony to be “generous” — in other words, not to let the Kabyle people starve.

In these articles, Camus described in great detail the abject living conditions in Kabylia — without, however, explaining that the negligence of the French state was punitive and deliberate, because the Kabyle had mounted the fiercest resistance to the occupier.

By focusing solely on the humanitarian drama, Camus put it at the service of the colonial order, which would then be absolved by its resolution. His objective defense of the colonial project transcended and went beyond his subjective point of view, his sincerity as a humanist.

Life Without Meaning

As a result of his articles, Camus hoped to see a growing awareness of the need for reform among the settlers and their governing bodies. The opposite happened. The colonial authorities banned a newspaper published by his then friend and mentor Pascal Pia, partly because of the articles by Camus. This attempt to influence colonial opinion was another setback for his hopes of reform.

His inability to influence colonial circles caused Camus deep disillusionment. It was also combined with other setbacks. Some were sentimental, such as the breakdown of his first marriage when he discovered that his wife had been cheating on him. Others were professional: his long university career proved to be for nothing, since he was not authorized to teach by the French state at the end of his studies because of his tuberculosis.

From these experiences of disillusion, there emerged an absolute indifference — which is the distinguishing feature of Meursault, the main character in Camus’s most famous novel, The Stranger — and the notion of a meaningless world, a world devoid of logic, of morals — in short, an absurd world.

There were two absurds, according to Camus. The first was the observation that neither life nor death makes sense. The second was an injunction: one must live one’s life as an “absurd man,” in full acceptance of the incapacity of human intelligence to offer an explanation or a meaning to the world.

Camus therefore praised the rejection of knowledge, of enlightenment, of history, which allowed him to turn his back on the problems — insoluble for him — posed by colonialism. He then hoped to focus on a solely aesthetic relationship with Algeria. He only returned to politics when forced to do so by events in the aftermath of the Second World War.

The Rhetoric of Liberation

After World War II, a weakened France, whose status as a sovereign nation was in question, unleashed a series of desperate, bloody, and temporarily successful attempts to reassert control over its colonies. The contradiction of France having recently been occupied itself by Germany was not lost on the peoples living under French colonial rule.

In January 1944, in a famous speech in Brazzaville, capital of the French Congo, Charles de Gaulle rallied Africans to his side by virtually promising independence:

In Africa, as in all the other territories where men live under our flag, there would not be progress worthy of the name if men in their native land could not . . . gradually rise up to the point of being able to participate in the management of their own affairs in their native land. It is the duty of France that this should be so.

Emboldened by France’s rhetoric of liberation — and by its military defeats in Europe — many colonized people took to the streets claiming the right to sovereignty and their own liberation. On Victory in Europe (V-E) Day in May 1945, in the towns of Sétif and Guelma, hundreds of Algerians — including many French army veterans — demonstrated under the Algerian flag. Riots ensued, the French authorities lost control, and some police officers and settlers died.

The repression was ruthless: what followed was a series of massacres of thousands of Arab civilians by the French army, air force, police, and settler militias, which included the dropping of forty-one tons of explosives on insurgent areas. These massacres were — and still are — severely underreported. Even by conservative estimates, there were ten thousand Algerian victims.

This was a permanent trauma for the Algerians: in effect, their war of independence stems from it. Although the repression set back the revolution by about ten years, it also cemented the conviction among Algerian nationalists that a complete break with France was the only way forward.

“An Arab Power”

In the aftermath of World War II, Camus argued that it was more important than ever for France to remain “an Arab power.” For him, this was the only way for his country to keep its high (colonial) rank in the world, to continue to be “treated with respect.” His contribution to that struggle lay in the realm of ideas.

In a series of articles published after a trip to Algeria in April–May 1945, Camus explained to his readers that France must undertake a “second conquest.” He wanted to wage and win the battle of common sense — an almost Gramscian program — with the Algerian people; that is, to convince them that colonialism could rhyme with justice. He wanted to “invent new formulas” and “rejuvenate our methods.”

This line of argument was on display in the newspaper Combat in May–June 1945, at a time when events on the ground had dashed his hopes. Perhaps sensing this, Camus wrote that this second conquest “will be less easy than the first.” But his articles also included a call for renewed settler colonialism: in an article published on May 23, 1945, titled “It Is Justice That Will Save Algeria From Hatred,” he wrote the following:

New men are therefore needed. And, at a time when so many young French people are looking for a way and a reason to live, perhaps a few thousand of them will be found to understand that a land awaits them, where they will be able to serve both man and their country.

Their Massacres and Ours

In these articles, he did devote a few succinct but revealing sentences to Sétif and Guelma: “[These] massacres provoked deep indignation and resentment among the French in Algeria. The repression that followed fostered in the Arab masses a feeling of fear and hostility.” For Camus, the “massacre” was the death of a hundred or so settlers. In contrast, he referred to the systematic killing of more than ten thousand Algerian civilians by the army, police, and settler militias as “repression.”

What emerged from these lines was clear. When Europeans killed Algerians by the thousands, it was a question of force, of “repression.” However, when the violence went in the opposite direction, and on a much smaller scale, it was a question of violence, of “massacres.”

Camus also neglected to comment on the historical context, on the living conditions of Algerians during the Second World War (which were even more trying than those experienced by the settlers or the French in the metropole). Nor did he say anything about the Algerian demands for independence. What remained was the dismay of Camus at the violence of the subalterns and the vague calls — which sound like so many pious hopes — for more tolerance and understanding.

In short, Camus endorsed the presence and authority of the French state in Algeria with his choice of words and his omissions. His unspoken premise was that some human beings were more equal than others, that only some have the right to revolt. His compassion was mostly directed toward the settlers, despite the enormous disparity in scale of the human losses in Sétif and Guelma. The “second conquest” Camus had imagined failed before it had even begun.

Shame and Fury

Camus mostly withdrew from public comment on the issue of colonialism after the publication in 1946 of a series of articles titled “Neither Victims Nor Executioners,” in which he equated the violence of the colonizer with the liberating violence of the colonized. The author published these articles in the midst of a worldwide decolonization movement. The false equivalence that he drew led critics to refer to him derisively as a “beautiful soul.” Yet Camus publicly maintained his profession of neutrality.

However, his private reaction after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 was telling. In his journal, Camus compared his reaction to the loss of France’s Indochinese colonies to his feelings when the Nazis had invaded France:

Fall of Dien Bien Phu. As in 1940, a shared feeling of shame and fury. On the evening of the massacre, the balance sheet is clear. Right-wing politicians put people in an indefensible situation and at the same time, the left shot them in the back.

It should be clear to us by now that Camus was not an anti-colonialist but rather a shrewd defender of the colonial system, who put forth a vision of humanist compromise to defend the French presence in Algeria and elsewhere.

So why is Camus cast in the role of a fervent anti-colonialist today by critics and politicians alike? Because this retelling of Camus’s past, the smoothing over of his contradictions, helps promote an idealized reflection of France’s colonial legacy.

Macron’s Gambit

This deployment of Camus and his writing for political purposes is ongoing. The latest example brings us back to Emmanuel Macron. Now installed as president, Macron is concerned above all with reelection. In a particularly devious masterstroke of realpolitik, Macron has decided that France will begin to acknowledge the crimes of colonialism. All of a sudden, after decades of obfuscation, the Republic is beginning to confront its legacy.

While campaigning for the presidency, Macron described colonialism as a crime against humanity. In the spring of 2020, he arranged the return to Algeria of the remains of Berber rebels held in France for over a century. In the summer of that year, he set up a committee to investigate the history of French colonialism in Algeria, headed by a prominent historian. These are just a few of many symbolic gestures we could mention, and more are sure to come.

Why is Macron taking these public stands? The presence of France’s far-right party — formerly the Front National, now the Rassemblement National (RN) — in the second round of the next presidential election will virtually guarantee Macron’s election, just as it did in 2017. By publicly condemning French colonialism in Algeria, at the same time as he pursues a neocolonial policy in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere, Macron is purposefully energizing the electoral base of Marine Le Pen’s party.

A large part of Le Pen’s electorate consists of the millions of former settlers from French Algeria and their descendants. Most are nostalgic for colonial times. The region where most former settlers live — Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, also known as PACA — is one of the two largest electoral strongholds for the RN.

However, for Macron, in this exercise of realpolitik, there must be a redeeming feature to this narrative of truth-telling which finally acknowledges the criminal nature of France’s colonial past, lest it become a losing electoral proposition. That redeeming feature is Camus.

France’s Saving Grace

In August 2020, France’s state-run radio station France Info led with the news about a colonial atrocity that took place seventy-three years ago. In March 1947, the French army carried out several massacres in Madagascar, which resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, when the Malgaches tried to assert their independence, basing themselves on Charles de Gaulle’s promises. The metropolitan press scarcely reported on what was happening at the time, and it went unnoticed in a France that was still reeling from the occupation.

These events did not form part of France’s official history — until this summer. The massacres themselves were one-sided, much like Sétif and Guelma. In fact, the situation was perhaps even worse in Madagascar than in Algeria: more Malgaches were killed, many were tortured, and almost all were subject to forced labor in the 1940s prior to the uprising. Very few settlers were killed.

The French public finally learned about this gruesome episode through public radio in 2020. Yet one part of the program and its accompanying online article shined a light of hope and generosity, involving Albert Camus. France Info cited Camus as having said that France was inflicting upon Madagascar the very things for which the French had condemned Germany.

Camus’s actual, non-truncated statements on the 1947 massacre were in fact quite different. He first stated that the only reliable (“not suspect”) information he had consisted of reports of atrocities committed by the rebels and on “certain aspects of the repression.” Once again, as with his article on Sétif and Guelma, Camus differentiated between the violence of colonized people (“atrocities”) and that of settlers (“repression”): “In lieu of an opinion, I rather feel an equal repugnance toward both methods.”

Camus then echoed unproven rumors that Malgache insurgents tortured French settlers — the opposite was true — and went on to make the following comparison:

The cowardice and criminality of our adversary do not permit us to become cowards and criminals ourselves. I have not heard that we built ovens to avenge ourselves upon the Nazis. Until it is proven otherwise, it is my belief that we presented them to our tribunals. The strength of the law is a firm and straightforward justice. And it is justice that should represent France.

This problematic defense of colonial justice is not part of France Info’s choice of quotations from Camus for their story. Camus at least, if not France itself, has to be shielded from criticism. For he is the nation’s saving grace.

Now we know the irony of it all: Camus is used to paper over one of the French Republic’s most glaring contradictions — the lofty revolutionary rhetoric (liberté, égalité, fraternité) belied by relentless colonial exploitation — yet that contradiction tore him up for most of his life, and he never completely came to terms with it.

No Man’s Land

Camus was never more torn than during the war of Algerian independence. When that conflict began in the fall of 1954, Camus at first opted for silence. Then, among other interventions, he issued a very public plea for a “civil truce,” which put the violence of the French colonial state since 1830 on the same level as the resulting Algerian resistance.

In more immediate terms, it objectively equated the violence of the French army and police in the 1950s with the popular counterviolence of the National Liberation Front (FLN) and the Algerian National Movement (MNA), the leading pro-independence organizations at the time.

This approach convinced no one. The French settlers saw Camus as a traitor: as far as they were concerned, there was no room for hiding behind humanistic homilies — this was the time to fight for French Algeria. The Algerians themselves tried to co-opt him: the January 1956 conference for a civil truce at which Camus spoke was effectively — although he did not realize it — organized by the FLN.

Faced with the fiasco of the conference, pressured by friends and (ultimately) by historical developments, Camus unraveled. In 1958, he eventually made public his (long-standing) categorical rejection of Algerian independence (dismissing the idea as “a purely emotional expression”), and supported a “compromise” put forth by a maximalist European settler politician, which would have meant sharing power with the Algerian people, but not granting them genuine sovereignty. (This compromise was, in effect, the neocolonial system still in place today in most former French colonies: nominally independent, their currency is controlled by France, which also has military bases in every single one of them.)

After he had received the Nobel Prize in Stockholm, an Algerian student questioned Camus about his anti-independence line. The response was symptomatic: although he believed in justice, Camus said, “I would defend my mother before justice.” This implicitly recognized the injustice of the colonial system.

Camus later wrote in his diary that the duty of a writer was ultimately to be alongside his people and to defend them — by which he meant the Pieds-Noirs, the French settlers in Algeria. His final, posthumous novel, The First Man, unambiguously reflected this stance.

Sartre and Camus

Contrast these positions with those of Jean-Paul Sartre, who unswervingly supported the independence of the Algerian people and did whatever was in his power to support that cause. He urged French troops to desert rather than fight against Algerians, and publicly declared that he hoped for France’s defeat. Sartre wrote many prefaces of books authored by anti-colonial writers, for this was often the only way they could escape the net of censorship to be published.

Sartre cared little for his personal safety. He exposed himself to arrest and was the target of assassination attempts: the pro-colonial terrorist organization OAS (Organisation armée secrète) bombed his apartment twice. As we have seen, Camus publicly voiced his fear that his mother might die at the hands of the FLN; yet it was Sartre’s mother who was actually wounded by the OAS during one attempt on his life.

Today, a lucid assessment of Sartre and his commitments would require an honest look at France’s crimes in Indochina, Madagascar, Algeria, and elsewhere — and by extension, at the systematic crimes of all imperial powers. Such an assessment would also take account of Sartre’s rigorous critique of colonialism and neocolonialism as a direct emanation of capitalist interests — a reading of history that was anathema to Camus throughout his life. (Even during his brief spell as a member of the Communist Party in the thirties, Camus wrote that class struggle was “an illusion.”)

Conventional, binary perceptions that Sartre was in favor of tyranny while Camus supported freedom clearly stem from the anti-colonial stance of the former and the anti-communism of the latter, rather than any objective balance sheet of their records. In short, the standing of both men reflects the dominant discourse in Western societies.

Today, Camus and Sartre are paradoxically inseparable, because they represent opposite poles on some of the most fundamental debates about racism and social oppression of all forms — not least the question of systemic state violence and popular counterviolence. It’s an excellent time for us to reconsider why these two intellectuals have received such contrasting treatment, and to what political purpose.