How Jean-Paul Sartre and Les Temps Modernes Supported Algeria’s Struggle for Freedom

France waged a brutal colonial war in Algeria during the 1950s. But a group of writers clustered around Jean-Paul Sartre’s journal Les Temps modernes played a courageous role, exposing French war crimes and supporting the right of the Algerian people to self-determination.

Jean-Paul Sartre in 1967. (Wikimedia Commons)

President Emmanuel Macron of France has now admitted that the French state committed terrible crimes in the long war (1954–1962) to prevent Algerian independence: “No crime, no atrocity committed by anyone during the War of Algeria can be excused or left hidden.”

Macron can hardly deny the war crimes, which are now a matter of public record: torture, executions on dubious grounds, the unlawful killing of prisoners. Up to half a million people — mostly Algerian Muslims but also including thousands of reluctant French conscripts — died in the course of the war.

However, what Macron cannot explain is why France persisted for so long in a war that was both deeply immoral and plainly futile. The mainstream political parties — those of the Left at least as much as those of the Right — insisted that Algeria was an integral part of French territory and that its independence was not a matter for discussion.

One essential element in the support of the mainstream left for colonialism was their belief in the idea of the “civilizing mission.” According to this line of thought, France, as the homeland of the 1789 Revolution, had a duty to take the values of liberty, equality, and fraternity to other, more benighted territories. The idea survives today in Macron’s France under the name of “republican values.”

In practice it was nonsense. When France colonized Algeria in the 1830s, there were schools in every village. A century later, only a quarter of the Muslim population could read Arabic, and less than one in ten could read French.

To really understand what was happening in Algeria, we have to look to the small but courageous minority of the French population who opposed the war and supported the struggle of the National Liberation Front (FLN) for independence. They came from a variety of political standpoints — Communists, Christians, anarchists, Trotskyists, existentialists. Many suffered police repression for their activities, although it was the Algerians who received the harshest treatment by far.

Modern Times, Modern struggles

There was consistent support for Algerian independence from the figures grouped around the journal Les Temps modernes (“Modern Times”). The novelist and playwright Jean-Paul Sartre had founded the publication in 1945 with his friend, the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Sartre had been involved with the Resistance to the Nazi occupation of France, and he wanted to see radical social change in the postwar world. In particular, he was strongly opposed to racism and colonialism.

He and Merleau-Ponty had little enthusiasm for the existing parties of the French left. Immediately after the war, both the Socialist Party (SFIO) and the French Communists (PCF) had joined a coalition government under the right-wing leader General Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle’s administration was determined to hold on to France’s colonial empire — the second-largest in the world, covering nearly one-tenth of the world’s land area and five percent of its population.

Sartre and Merleau-Ponty wanted to do more than speak with their individual voices: they considered a collective response to be necessary, so they launched a journal and built up a team of writers. Les Temps modernes appeared every two months. The initial circulation was only a few thousand copies, but by the 1960s it had reached more than twenty thousand subscribers. As a result of Sartre’s fame, it became a well-known publication, and more mainstream media outlets often republished its articles.

While Les Temps modernes was a journal of the radical left, it was not an explicitly Marxist one, although some of its contributors were Marxists. It soon earned the bitter hostility of the Communist Party, which resented any criticism from its left flank, and saw the publication as a rival for influence among students and intellectuals. PCF ideologue Jean Kanapa accused Les Temps modernes of being run by “little fanatics sympathetic to Trotskyism.” The Soviet official Andrei Zhdanov, who directed cultural policy under Stalin, also denounced it.

After Merleau-Ponty withdrew in 1953, Sartre continued to have a dominant influence at the journal, and many of his major articles first appeared there. But it still maintained a certain independence. In the 1952–56 period, when Sartre himself moved very close to the PCF, Les Temps modernes did not always reflect his priorities. It carried material that was highly critical of the systems in the USSR and Eastern Europe — notably a savage account by Marcel Péju of the rigged show trial of the Communist leader Rudolf Slánský in Czechoslovakia.

Pity for the Maghreb

Les Temps modernes had opposed the French war in Indochina, though without explicitly calling for the independence of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. It took up the question of Algeria even before the war began. In 1953 the journal carried a long article on Algerian society by Daniel Guérin titled “Pitié pour le Maghreb” (“Pity for the Maghreb”).

Guérin was a regular contributor to Les Temps modernes; as a journalist, he believed in seeing for himself. In the 1930s he had toured Nazi Germany, trying to understand the thinking of German working people. In the late 1940s he spent two years in the United States, studying the labor movement and the way racism was deeply rooted in American society.

Les Temps modernes published some of Guérin’s writings from his time in the United States. It was one of the few journals that would have done so, since he was too critical of the United States for the pro-American Cold Warriors, but not anti-American enough for the Communist Party’s liking.

Now he turned his attention to Algeria and spent three months in the autumn of 1952 traveling around the territory. Guérin made a point of encountering and listening to people from all parts of society. His article was a stark indictment of French rule. It examined the economic aspects of French rule — poverty and unemployment, poor standards of health and education — but also its cultural impact, which had repressed the Arabic language and the Muslim religion. As Guérin put it, France had “tried to kill the soul of this country.”

He concluded that the French left parties — the Communists in particular — were unprepared to deal with the situation. The Algerian crisis would, he predicted, be the “drama of the French left.”

It is unlikely that any of the politicians who would be running France in the years that followed took the trouble to read Guérin’s work at the time. They were too busy with electoral alliances and parliamentary maneuvers. If they had done so, they would have received a clear warning of an impending disaster that would cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

“To This War, We Say No”

When the war broke out, Les Temps modernes responded clearly. In October 1955, it published an editorial statement under the title “Refusal to Obey,” demanding independence for Algeria. The editorial described Algeria as a “colony,” rejecting the official fiction that it was an integral part of France, and stated that “a war is starting in North Africa . . . to this war, we say no.”

The next issue went further, recognizing that constitutional channels of action would not suffice. The front cover bore the slogan “Algeria is not France.” The French authorities had prosecuted a journalist for interviewing members of the FLN. The editorial effectively encouraged French troops to refuse orders and to fraternize with Algerian freedom fighters:

Yesterday, Robert Barrat was arrested for having held a meeting with the “rebels.” Tomorrow, on the trails of the Aurès mountains, perhaps the conscript soldiers will come to recognize them as brothers.

In 1956, the French government brought in a set of “special powers” that were designed to facilitate the war against the FLN. The leader of the government at the time was a Socialist politician, Guy Mollet. The Communist Party, whose strategy was to form a new Popular Front–style alliance with Mollet’s party, voted in favor of these powers.

An editorial in Les Temps modernes condemned the special powers, which it saw as marking a decisive turn away from the possibility of a peaceful settlement in Algeria. It noted that both of the main left parties, the SFIO and the PCF alike, had backed the special powers:

The left, for once unanimous, has voted for the “special powers,” powers which are totally useless for negotiation but indispensable for the pursuit and intensification of the war. This vote is scandalous and runs the risk of being irreparable.

Outlaw Algeria, Outlaw France

Les Temps modernes became increasingly influential on the small minority of French people who were in total opposition to the war and prepared to actively support the Algerian struggle. Sartre was fully supportive of the hard line taken by the journal. As early as June 1955, at the World Peace Assembly at Helsinki, he declared that the colonial era was at an end and urged the French government to recognize the demands of the people of North Africa. This was going rather further than his Communist friends — who were calling for “peace” in Algeria but not independence — might have wished.

However, it was not Sartre alone who formed the journal’s policy. Francis Jeanson was also a key influence. Jeanson was a young intellectual who greatly admired Sartre — he had written two books about him — and became part of the editorial team at Les Temps modernes. Like Daniel Guérin, Jeanson had seen things for himself. He had spent six months working in Algeria, taking the opportunity to learn about Algerian society. His wife, Colette, visited Algeria three times in 1955, traveling clandestinely, meeting activists in a shantytown, and interviewing an FLN leader.

In December 1955, Francis and Colette jointly published a book called L’Algérie hors la loi (“Outlaw Algeria”), which was firmly partisan in its support for the FLN. Indeed, some reviewers — notably Guérin — had reservations that it was too uncritical of the movement. But the book made some strikingly accurate predictions: it suggested that there would be a war lasting some eight years, that Algeria would obtain its independence (something almost everyone deemed unfeasible), and that the struggle would produce a political crisis leading to Charles de Gaulle’s return to power from retirement.

Jeanson was prepared to put his head on the line. In 1956, he withdrew from his journalistic work and built up a clandestine network of up to a thousand activists who were prepared to work as “suitcase carriers” for the FLN. They performed various jobs for the movement — in particular, helping transport the money that the FLN raised by taxing Algerian workers and shopkeepers in France. The racist French police force were much less likely to harass and search Europeans than North Africans.

Jeanson proved to be a formidable organizer. He defied the French authorities, often quite impudently — for example, by holding a press conference in Paris when the police were pursuing him. He remained out of their clutches but was put on trial and sentenced in his absence.

Forbidden Questions

Les Temps modernes did not merely take positions on Algeria. It also attempted to provide information on the realities of the war as it developed. Georges Mattéi had already done military service, but in 1956 the French army recalled Mattéi as a reservist and sent him to Algeria. He was shocked by what he observed there — the widespread use of torture, the burning of homes, and the indiscriminate killing of Algerians.

Subsequently, Sartre urged Mattéi to write about his experiences, and he published an article in Les Temps modernes under the title “Days in Kabylia.” It described what he had been obliged to do and presented readers with the realities of torture. The French authorities promptly seized the issue of the journal containing Mattéi’s article.

The publication’s forthright role in opposing the war brought it into regular conflict with the state. In 1957 the authorities in Algeria seized it four times. One of Sartre’s most dramatic confrontations with those in power came with the case of Henri Alleg, a Communist journalist of European origin who lived in Algeria. French paratroopers arrested Alleg and subjected him to systematic torture. But he survived and managed to smuggle out an account of his experiences, which was published as a book under the title La Question (in French, “question” means both question and torture).

The book was briefly a best seller before the French government banned it from sale. Sartre then responded with one of his most incisive articles, “A Victory.” He reminded his readers that barely fifteen years again, the German occupiers and their French collaborators had been torturing French people. Now Algerians were suffering the very same fate at French hands. Sartre went on to argue that it was pointless to be simply against torture as an abstract principle without condemning the political conditions that made it an essential tool of repression for the state. The war could not be fought in a more “humane” fashion, he insisted — the only possible demand was for complete French withdrawal.

Sartre gave his article — presumably in order to ensure the most rapid publication — not to Les Temps modernes, but rather to the weekly L’Express. The authorities immediately ordered its seizure. On the morning that it was due to appear, the police went round every newsagent and newsstand, confiscating all the copies. But that was not the end of the affair. The satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné published a report of the seizure, accompanied by a reduced photograph of the article with large crosses through it. This could easily be read with the aid of a magnifying glass, and the authorities did not seize it.

Sartre and Fanon

Les Temps modernes also opened its pages to one of the most remarkable spokespersons of the Algerian independence movement, Frantz Fanon. Fanon, who had been born in the French Caribbean colony of Martinique, had immersed himself in the work of the FLN after first going to Algeria as a psychiatrist. He became part of the team that produced El Moudjahid, the main FLN publication.

Fanon had long been an admirer of Sartre. He had drawn on Sartre’s book about antisemitism, Anti-Semite and Jew, for his own early writings on racism. While he was wholly committed to the Algerian national struggle, Fanon was anxious to obtain support from those Europeans who were prepared to offer it unconditionally. He saw Sartre and Les Temps modernes as one means of winning such support. He published an article in the journal dealing with the role of European settlers in Algeria and paying tribute to the small minority of those settlers who had been prepared to give practical aid to the FLN.

In 1961 Fanon arranged to meet Sartre in Rome. Although he was already suffering from the leukemia that would kill him later that year, he was anxious to learn from Sartre. Fanon insisted on talking until the usually indefatigable Frenchman was exhausted.

Just before his death, Fanon completed his last book, The Wretched of the Earth. Sartre contributed a preface, wholly endorsing Fanon’s critique of French imperialism. Hostile critics often accuse Sartre of glorifying violence. Clearly, they have not taken the trouble to read what he actually wrote. His central theme, developed from Fanon, was that the violence of the oppressed was a necessary response to the violence that imperialism had imposed on its victims.

Taking a Stand

Sartre and Les Temps modernes played an important part in one of the most dramatic expressions of opposition to the war, the “Manifesto of the 121” (always known by that title, though it eventually had over 170 signatories). This document went far beyond simple opposition to the war. It gave full, open support to soldiers who refused to fight and to civilians who offered practical assistance to the FLN.

A range of well-known figures signed the “Manifesto of the 121,” including a number of contributors to Les Temps modernes — Sartre himself, Simone de Beauvoir, Guérin, Jeanson, Marcel Péju. The publisher and critic Maurice Nadeau, who was a central figure in organizing the manifesto, had also written for the journal. Unsurprisingly, there was a government clampdown in response. Les Temps modernes had intended to publish the manifesto but was forced to appear with two blank pages instead.

By the autumn of 1961, it was clear that de Gaulle’s government would be obliged to concede independence to Algeria. But many of those who controlled the French state were still deeply hostile to Algerian rights. The Paris police imposed a curfew on all Algerians, even though constitutionally they were supposed to be French citizens. The FLN called a peaceful, unarmed demonstration to protest against the curfew. The Parisian police, under the command of former Nazi collaborator Maurice Papon, savagely attacked the demonstrators, killing some two hundred people.

Paulette Péju was a radical journalist who had links to the Temps modernes circle — her husband Marcel was a long-standing member of the editorial team. She rapidly researched and wrote a short book about the events, Les ratonnades (“Racist Attacks”), based on eyewitness reports from the press and other sources, and accounts of police violence by Algerian activists. This was ready for publication by December 1961, but the authorities promptly seized the copies. It did not become available again to readers till 2000, after her death.

In retrospect, it is quite clear that Les Temps modernes was much better informed about the situation in Algeria than those who were in charge of government policy. While figures like François Mitterrand might spend the occasional holiday with their political friends in Algeria, the likes of Guérin, Jeanson, and others had seriously investigated Algerian reality. They knew that the cause of Algerian independence was not only morally and politically justified but also destined to achieve success. For France to cling to power merely increased human suffering.

It is a striking illustration of what can be achieved by a relatively small group of journalists who are prepared to report honestly and stand up to authority. Today, the defenders of the existing order like to sneer at the so-called woke — presumably they prefer the somnolence of ignorance. But Les Temps modernes shows how journalists who tell the truth can end up on the winning side.