Remembering Jean Daniel

Adam Shatz

In the winter of 2005, I was summoned by the French journalist Jean Daniel, who was in New York to promote his new book, The Jewish Prison. I had just published an admiring essay on his work in the New York Review of Books. Over a long lunch at the Carlyle Hotel on the Upper East Side, he recalled his conversations with Ben Bella, Bourguiba, Ben-Gurion, Kennedy, Castro and Mitterrand. Daniel did not hesitate to drop names, but there was no denying that he’d won the confidence of some of history’s great men (they were nearly all men). I looked at my blazer and slacks and regretted that I hadn’t worn something more formal. Daniel was dressed in a suit and tie without a crease, and spoke with a solemnity that would have been easy to ridicule had it not been so spellbinding. I had the impression of speaking to a retired ambassador or foreign minister rather than a journalist. As the former foreign minister Hubert Védrine wrote in Jean Daniel, observateur du siècle (2003), ‘Daniel has performed in the domain of journalism like a statesman.’

Daniel, who died last Wednesday at the age of 99, was born Jean-Daniel Bensaïd in Blida, 30 miles from Algiers, in 1920, the youngest of 11 children. His father, a prosperous flour merchant, was a leader of the local Jewish community, but Daniel had little interest in religion: he cried over the death of Socrates before he cried over the death of Job, he said, and found his faith in Gide, not god. The Bensaïds had come to Algeria from Spain in the 15th century, and were granted French citizenship, like all Algerian Jews, with the Crémieux Decree of 1870. ‘The idea that Algeria could one day become a sovereign state was, in my childhood and my milieu, inconceivable.’ But his classmates at the Collège colonial de Blida included some of the future leaders of the Algerian nationalist movement.

After the fall of France in 1940, the Crémieux decree was abolished and Algeria’s Jews were stripped of their citizenship. Daniel’s friend José Aboulker said he preferred to die as an anti-Nazi than simply because he was a Jew. Daniel joined him in the resistance, laying the groundwork for the Allied invasion; afterwards he headed to Libya with the Second Armoured Division of General Leclerc, and then to Normandy with the Free French Forces. While studying philosophy at the Sorbonne after the war, Daniel started a journal, Caliban, inspired by Combat, the paper Camus edited. Camus wrote a preface for Daniel’s first book, the novel L’Erreur, and helped him land a job covering colonial affairs with the Société Générale de presse.

Daniel remained, throughout his life, an ardent Camusian. His style – contemplative, sometimes florid, and unfailingly refined – owed much to his mentor’s. But their political alliance was tested by the war of independence, launched by the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) on 1 November 1954. Daniel’s first article in L’Express – and the first piece signed Jean Daniel – appeared just after the insurrection began. He became one of France’s most important chroniclers of the war, and an unusually subtle one. An early convert to the cause of independence, Daniel documented the horrors of French repression, including the murder of his schoolfriend Ali Boumendjel, who was ‘suicided’ by paratroopers in 1957. Camus, however, continued to hold out for a solution that would keep Algeria tied somehow to France.

Daniel argued that the French government had to recognise the FLN as the sole representative of the Algerian people, rather than continue its quixotic search for a more pliable interlocuteur valable. Yet his convictions never blinded him to the FLN’s brutality. He condemned their indiscriminate bombings in Algiers. When FLN troops massacred hundreds of people in Mélouza, a village close to a rival nationalist group, he signed a petition in Le Monde urging them to renounce such methods. He also warned against the FLN’s ideological authoritarianism, especially the tendency of some of its leaders to see the French presence as a ‘parenthesis’ that could be wiped away and forgotten. Algeria, he believed, was a different country after more than a century of French colonialism, with an Arab, Berber and Jewish elite that had, in effect, undergone an extensive acculturation to French norms. Freed of colonial domination, Algeria could become a mixed, pluralist society in which French would be taught, alongside Arabic and Berber, as one of the country’s national languages.

Thanks to the savagery of French repression but also to the FLN’s violence – a ‘competition in terror’, Daniel called it – this hope was dashed: the chasm between the communities could no longer be bridged. Still, late in his life he continued to pay tribute to the ‘revolutionary’ moment of the independence struggle, when the FLN’s more progressive leaders spoke proudly of the country’s distinctively Mediterranean identity, instead of pining for the restoration of a pure Arab-Islamic culture that France had somehow left unscathed.

Daniel spent the last years of the war writing from Tunis, where the FLN had its headquarters, and became part of the so-called ‘Maghreb Circus’ of foreign reporters. In 1961, he travelled to Bizerte, where Tunisian troops were trying to liberate a naval base that France refused to evacuate, and was nearly killed by French mitrailleuse fire. Recovering from his wounds in hospital – an experience he described in his aphoristic memoir La Blessure – he received a visit from Frantz Fanon. Daniel rejected Fanon’s defence of violence in Wretched of the Earth, published that December, and especially loathed Sartre’s incendiary preface. But he admired Fanon the man – his courage, his charisma, his sacrifice – and said, after Fanon’s death in December, that ‘the way he met your gaze was both sharp and indulgent.’

Daniel was not himself a revolutionary. He had a horror of violence, and found justifications of it in the name of utopian ideals obscene: in this he remained Camus’s protege. But his anti-colonialism ran deep. He frowned on the French far left’s embrace of revolutionaries in the developing world because he saw it as a kind of intellectual imperialism. Leftists who celebrated Algeria’s national movement as a prelude to revolution at home, he thought, were unable to see Algeria except through a French prism, and in that sense no different, temperamentally, from the Socialist politicians who believed Algeria should remain a part of France.

But if the revolutionary imagination held little appeal for Daniel, he respected revolutionaries who actually made the revolution and thereby made history. He visited Castro in November 1963, arriving in Havana with a peace proposal from JFK, whom he had met in the Oval Office a month earlier. On the second day of their meeting, Kennedy was assassinated. Daniel’s story on his involvement in this aborted peace initiative appeared in L’Express, and made him a star in Paris and New York.

In 1964 Daniel and the industrialist Claude Perdriel refounded the weekly magazine France-Observateur as Le Nouvel Observateur. As its editorial director, Daniel promoted what he called a ‘socialism in liberty’: egalitarian, anti-racist, opposed to the death penalty, supportive of the rights of women and minorities. The magazine stood on the social democratic left, between the Socialist and Communist parties. It wasn’t hostile to the Communist Party, but didn’t ignore the repression in the Soviet Union. Daniel spoke out early against Israeli militarism, condemning the conquests of 1967. In a 1972 editorial calling for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, he expressed his hope that, one day, the states of Israel and Palestine would ‘fuse’ into one, in the kind of coexistence he had once envisaged for Algeria. Although he was more comfortable in salons than behind the barricades, he had a flair for political theatre: at a 1970 press conference at the Elysée, he asked President Pompidou if he was troubled by newspaper reports about police attacks on innocent demonstrators. ‘Everything depends on your conception of innocence,’ Pompidou replied.

On Bernard Pivot’s television show Apostrophes in 1979, Daniel described himself as a dissident. But he was no longer convincing in this role, especially sitting across from one of Pivot’s other guests: Guy Hocquenghem, a gay liberation movement activist and Libération journalist. Hocquenghem interrupted Daniel repeatedly, saying he could hardly call himself a dissident while running one of France’s most influential glossies; he was one of the décideurs, setting the agenda of the country’s politics. Daniel denied that he had any such power and tried to ingratiate himself with Hocquenghem by praising his latest book, but Hocquenghem would not relent, and, after Daniel paid him the back-handed compliment of describing his style as classical and ‘bourgeois’, a shouting match erupted. ‘As soon as you write literature, you put on your smoking jacket, while at the offices of Libération you’re in jeans,’ Daniel said. ‘It’s all an imposture!’

Hocquenghem wasn’t wrong, however: Daniel was a consummate insider, always more comfortable with leaders and famous writers than with ‘the masses’. He was especially close to Mitterrand, who, as interior minister, had helped direct the repression of Algeria’s revolt. Le Nouvel Observateur championed Mitterrand for president in 1981. Although Daniel declined a post in his government, he agreed to conduct back-channel diplomacy for Mitterrand in Algeria and Portugal.

In his last decades, Daniel came to acquire – and rather cultivated – the air of a sage. Representatives of the Jewish and Muslim communities asked for his advice; so did Fabrice Luchini and Gérard Depardieu and, of course, the Elysée. It’s easy to make light of Daniel’s self-importance, his susceptibility to titles and honours. ‘Jean, you’re leaving for Spain?’ a former colleague remembers asking him. ‘Maybe,’ he replied. ‘The king invited me. But I’m very busy, I’ll see.’

But on the questions that most engaged his passions – Algeria during its independence struggle; the future of Israel-Palestine – he remained faithful to his convictions, above all his belief in the possibility, indeed the necessity, of coexistence between Muslims and Jews, on the basis of recognition and equality. In La Prison juive, he warned that Jews in the diaspora had voluntarily taken refuge in an ideological prison made up of three ‘invisible walls’: the idea of the Chosen People, commemoration of the Holocaust and Israel. In that prison, he argued, they could see themselves only as victims, even as they oppressed and persecuted another people; they had mistaken their own mental confinement for freedom.

The Algerian dilemma was different, but it, too, grew out of a failure of self-recognition. A few years ago Daniel recalled something that the Algerian novelist Kateb Yacine had written: ‘I would rather be an irreplaceable Algerian than an interchangeable Arab.’ What Daniel admired in Kateb’s writing, and in the Algerian revolutionaries he had known in the 1950s, was the ‘sense of belonging to something that hadn’t existed before’, a distinctive cultural métissage that wove together the various strands of Algeria’s heritage – including the French language, an imperial imposition that writers like Kateb had made their own and turned against their oppressors. Daniel’s politics rested on a complex, paradoxical, somewhat tortured humanism, suspicious of utopian promises. But there was something romantic, and distinctively Algerian, in his commitment to embracing the pluralism of identity, the existence of ‘the stranger who resembles me’.


  • 28 February 2020 at 4:27pm
    guido franzinetti says:
    Schatz’s portrait of Jean Daniel is as fair-minded as anyone could ask for. As a footnote, one could mention Daniel’s Le temps qui reste (1973). It is a book which contains many interesting remarks. At one point he mentions a meeting in Tunis, with Ahmed Boumendjel, at the time spokesman for the FLN. Boumendjel expressed a hope that Mauriac would take “the same radical positions of a Raymond Aron…Raymond Aron…there is someone who is effective” (Daniel, Le temps qui reste, 1984 edition, p. 92). Aron, not Sartre, as Daniel would have expected. This is a point which deserves some attention.

    • 28 February 2020 at 7:39pm
      guido franzinetti says: @ guido franzinetti
      PS To avoid misunderstandings, the reason why Boumendjel was expressing appreciation for Aron was the publication of La Tragédie algérienne (1957); L'Algérie et la République (1958). These texts were widely perceived as advocating a French retreat from Algeria.

  • 9 March 2020 at 10:03am
    Tanvyeboyo says:
    Very good assessment of Jean-Daniel Bensaid's (sic) very positive and progressive legacy. His daughter goes by the name of Daniel also, what's wrong with Bensaid? They really left Algeria for good.
    Maybe Israel and Palestine will find a way to develop together that was never going to happen in l'Algérie française. Meanwhile, the Nouvel Obs now is part of the French establishment which sees no difference between Daech/ISIS and Assad. This must surprise Syrian Christians and Alawites.