Forever on the Wrong Side

R.W. Johnson

  • Suret-Canale: de la Résistance a l’anticolonialisme by Pascal Bianchini
    L’Esprit Frappeur, 253 pp, €14.00, March 2011, ISBN 978 2 84405 244 5

Jean Suret-Canale, or Suret as everyone called him, was one of the finest Marxist historians and geographers of the last century. A pioneering Africanist, his books on Francophone Africa were translated into many languages and won him a large audience in Africa, China, Russia and Eastern Europe. The lives of most historians are lived in the comfort of libraries and university departments and don’t make for interesting biography: Suret was an exception.

‘I have always lived on the margins,’ he once said. It didn’t help that both his parents were outsiders. His father was Corsican; Bonapartism ran in the family. He was an engraver (the family shop is still there on the quai de l’Horloge in Paris), and I remember Suret showing me with pride the tiny measuring scales his father had used. His mother was German, but was expelled from Germany in 1914 for having married a Frenchman, and was quite unable to reveal her German origins in the Boche-hating France of the 1920s. Suret was a clever but also a sickly child, forced to wear a metal corset. In 1931, when he was ten, he went to the Exposition Coloniale in Paris; utterly fascinated, he returned time and again. His favourite subject at school was geography, especially the geography of what we know now as the Third World.

Georges Mandel, the colonial minister at the time, was determined to endow scholarships that would attract bright pupils to the colonial service. Suret won one in 1938, his prize a trip to French West Africa. The following year he won a trip to Indochina. He couldn’t fail to notice the difference between the two. In West Africa he’d been told by the French, ‘the Africans are good chaps as long as you kick their backsides from time to time,’ whereas in Indochina he found only fear and hatred among the settlers. In the lycées of Saigon and Hanoi the Vietnamese children often came top but the French would tell him, with great vehemence, that this was only because they were cheats, liars and thieves. It seemed obvious that the difference lay in the strength of competition the locals offered to the colonists. For the French in Indochina life was all about opium, keeping multiple mistresses and a general sense that they were in this lotus land for the next thousand years or so. On the way back to Europe, Suret stopped off in Madras, and was amazed to find the English colonists all talking of the days of the Raj as being virtually over. He had just reached Singapore when he heard that the war had begun.

In Paris, Suret had attended the elite Lycée Henri IV, where his philosophy teacher was a communist. He was greatly impressed by him, read up on Marxism and was tempted to join the Trotskyists (‘they always got Stalin and Stalinism completely right’). The trouble was that they were hostile to the Popular Front, which Suret supported as a barrier against fascism. The way he resolved the dilemma was typical. There had been furious communist criticism of Georges Friedmann’s De la Sainte Russie à l’URSS. Suret read it and felt certain that Friedmann was right: Stalin’s cult of personality was proof of the predominantly peasant nature of Russian society, peasants being liable both to personalise and revere political power. Thus satisfied that Stalin-worship wasn’t intrinsic to communism, he joined the Union des Etudiants Communistes, though without telling his father (his mother had died in 1937).

After returning from the Far East, Suret started a course at the Sorbonne, but in May 1940, as the Germans advanced on Paris, he and his student communist friends got on their bikes and went off to the west of France. Back in Paris later that year, Suret was arrested by the Vichy police for posting flyers. Handed over to the Germans, he saw that France too had now been colonised. ‘The problem is that I am on the wrong side!’ He was jailed for three months, given next to nothing to eat, and came out a physical wreck. Happily, the Union des Etudiants Communistes ordered him to Toulouse as an organiser – which meant crossing into the unoccupied zone.

Life there was completely different. He was treated as a refugee. Pétain was popular and everyone talked very solemnly about the ‘révolution nationale’. No one wanted to join the Resistance, for which Suret started recruiting. He continued his studies, writing a thesis on the medieval history of Toulouse, but in 1942 he went underground, working under a variety of other names in Montpellier and Périgueux. He was in a three-person cell that included a Jew, Robert Kirschen. In 1942, the Gestapo pounced on a Resistance network at the Maison de Chimie, and Kirschen’s younger brother André was among those arrested. André, at 15 the youngest of them, was the only one not shot, but in ‘compensation’, both his father and brother were killed for being ‘relatives of the terrorist André Kirschen’; his mother was gassed in Birkenau.

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[*] Stephen Smith wrote about Foccart in the LRB of 11 February 2010.