- 'Le Prélude d'une sorte de fin de l'histoire':Underpinning Assimilation in Camus's Chroniques algériennes
For the early twenty-first century reader free from the conjunctural intensities of the Second World War, two sets of investigative journalistic pieces on Algeria by Albert Camus provide a tidy framing for those years. Between 5 and 15 June 1939, he published his outspoken enquiry into famine in Kabylia in Alger républicain. Six years later, in Combat, his urgent calls for social reform in Algeria coincided with the aftermath of the events of Sétif and Guelma, when thousands of Algerian Muslims were killed in French air and marine artillery strikes, these attacks coming in the wake of an Algerian uprising in which a hundred French colons had been killed. The scale of the reprisals went largely unnoticed in France, where the Algerian unrest was put down to famine conditions, with no mention of the political backdrop to the unrest. (Political supporters of Messali Hadj, the imprisoned leader of the Parti Populaire Algérien, had protested on 1 May 1945 about his having been moved a week earlier from Sétif to a prison in Brazzaville.)1 In the words of Henri Benazet, the French military response was "féroce, impitoyable, en vérité inhumaine par son manque de discernement" (Nouschi 174).
We need to guard against anachronism, however, in our assessment of Camus's stance, for although his reports postdate the military action, his three-week trip to Algeria in spring 1945 during which he covered 2,500 kilometres was in fact completed before 8 May 1945; he was therefore not in a position to have in situ knowledge of the ferocity of the reprisals.2 This doubtless explains the general terms in which he couches his argument in a Combat article of 23 May 1945. There he condemns the criminal actions directed against "de malheureuses et innocentes victimes françaises" before arguing, in a careful sequel, that punitive military force will be counter-productive: "Nous récolterons la haine, comme tous les vainqueurs incapables de surmonter leur victoire […] je voudrais que nous répondions au meurtre par la seule justice, pour éviter un avenir irréparable."3 Whereas a teleological reading of Camus's reformist interventions constructed from a postcolonial vantage point might incline us to dismiss them as demonstrably vain attempts to shore up a colonial polity, this article attempts to heed Frederick [End Page 7] Cooper's injunction in a recent study of colonialism to avoid "doing history backward," a process whereby we anachronistically confuse analytical categories of the present with the native mindsets of the past.4 Cooper explores the paradox whereby scholarly interest in the phenomenon of modern Western colonialism peaked at a time when colonialism had precisely ceased to be a political issue. Mindful of the disjunctures "between the frameworks of past actors and present interpreters," I propose to reconstruct Camus's position in relation to a political repertoire that was predicated on the legitimacy of Empire.5 Indeed, Camus's apocalyptic evocation in 1958 of the end of French rule in Algeria as "le prélude d'une sorte de fin de l'histoire"6 bears testimony not only to his—and many others'—narrowly Eurocentric view of History, but also to the embeddedness of assumptions about the continuation of colonial polities in Africa.
Camus's reporting on the disastrous economic circumstances in Kabylia in 1939 went largely unnoticed in France; indeed the criticism that he was later regularly to level at left-wing French critics who accused him of implicit collusion with colonial injustice was that he was "un écrivain voué, depuis vingt ans, au service de l'Algérie" (Essais 1018). Six years later, he was to provide the most lucid and progressive voice in the French press of May 1945, as Jacqueline Lévi-Valensi and others point out (Combat 86, Siblot and Planche 165). Most reporting attributed the events of Sétif to the famine situation, and there was little talk of the brutal French military response. Even two months after the air raids, Pierre Dubard in Le Figaro (7-13 July 1945) preferred...