The unrelenting COVID-19 pandemic immediately brought Albert Camus’s La Peste, published in 1947, to become a best-seller again earlier this year. But while readers found in Camus’s “oeuvre de solidarité” a voice sharing both their fears and hopes during lockdown, others, amid the recent events that rekindled the Black Lives Matter movement and social justice activism worldwide, came to look back on the author’s fugacious position on colonialism and racial discrimination.
Camus’s reticence on the Algerian liberation movement was all the more upsetting given the author’s history of championing freedom causes in other countries, like the Resistance of Paris under the Nazis or in Spain against Franco’s fascist regime and in the Soviet Union against Stalinism.
When Camus came to New York in 1946, he expressed his regret about the treatment of African Americans in the United States. Yet, in his homeland, it seemed to the Algerian indigenous as though Camus advocated for a different type of freedom—his position on similar causes around the world contrasted with his viewpoint on the issue of the Algerian independence, which he later openly opposed.
The “Pied-Noir Bias”
Some of Camus’s contemporaries, including fellow Pieds-noirs (Algerian-born people of French and other European descent), first saw in Camus too reluctant a man about the Algerian independence. His former friend Sartre, with whom Camus parted company after publishing L’Homme révolté in 1951, condemned Camus’s stance on the Algerian question, which Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre’s wife, ascribed to Camus’s “Pied-noir bias.”
To stand up to his detractors, who believed Camus ought to have supported the Algerian liberation cause like he had elsewhere, Camus often resorted to his early journalism, when he wrote about the racial discrimination and inequality to which the indigenous Algerians were subjected under the French rule. Reporting for Alger Républicain during the 1930s, Camus conducted a series of reportage in the Kabylie region (northeast of Algeria), where he disclosed the staggering poverty the indigenous underwent while colonial France boasted about prosperity and generosity. The articles, among others, put Camus at odds with the Government General, which compelled him to leave for France.
But if Camus had objected, even publicly, to France’s colonial practices, he never came to admit that independence, after all, would prove salutary for the indigenous in Algeria. He even came to oppose it.
The indigenous Algerians were about ten times as many as the Pieds-noirs in the mid-1950s, but when the War of Independence broke out in 1954 Camus still believed it only represented a small fraction of extremists among the population. Born on 7 November 1913, in Mondovi (northeastern Algeria), Camus was a Pied-noir himself, and he saw in the independence of Algeria a regrettable exodus of his own people. Simply because they were French, he feared, the Pieds-noirs would not be allowed to live in an independent Algeria, and, even if they stayed, they would live as second-class citizens in a land that was nevertheless theirs.
However, Camus’s fears of a sudden estrangement of the Pieds-noirs mirrored the reality of the indigenous Muslim Algerians, who were not French citizens before 1958 and lived in their motherland with fewer rights and access to wealth. Camus believed that there was a way for France to correct its misdoings without having to lose the North African colony, but the war was to prove him wrong.
The 1956 Civil Truce
When the Algerian War of Independence broke out on 1 November 1954, it appeared that Camus had not even heard about it. In any case, he was in France and wouldn’t immediately react to it. He traveled to Italy during the same month to deliver a series of talks titled “L’Artiste et son temp” (“the artist and his time”), in which he discussed the artist’s relation to reality. He also touched on revolt but said nothing about the current insurrection in Algeria. In Naples, he would wander through poor neighborhoods and note that they reminded him of Algiers.
Camus traveled to Algiers in February, 1955. Yet even then, current political circumstances there were not brought to discussion—at least not publicly. He met his old friend Edmond Brua, editor of Le Journal d’Alger, and told him in an interview for that newspaper that he found the city “more beautiful than ever” now. They spoke of arts, of fellow writers like Kateb Yacine and Jean Grenier, and football; yet nothing, again, about the November insurrection.
Almost a year later, in January, 1956, Camus came back to Algiers with the sole objective of establishing a civil truce, now that the war flared up and proved ineluctable. He joined an ad-hoc committee whose members were both Pieds-noirs and Algerian indigenous, some of whom were members of the rebelling FLN (Front de libération national), like Ferhat Abbas and Amar Ouzegane; facing criticism later, Camus said he was not aware of their political affiliation.
Camus disapproved of the FLN’s tactics during the war, and he even considered the civil truce a step against the movement in some way. While objecting to targeting civilians, however, Camus did not oppose the war in itself, favoring the safeguard of l’Algérie française, as did the majority of French Algerians then, even if by military means. Once, he joked about how the French army overwhelmed the ALN (Armée de libération nationale, armed wing of the FLN) by “making burnooses sweat."
When the indigenous members of the civil truce committee expressed their fear that the French side was less likely to compromise, arguing that the use of civilian repression was at the heart of its modus operandi of keeping order, Camus was skeptical. But when he discussed the truce with the Government General later he was told that it would not include “those who are civilian by day and guerillas by night” (practically, the average indigenous adult in the French army’s eyes).
Camus was all the more disillusioned when it dawned on him that the majority of fellow French Algerians, who were conservative, immediately objected to the truce, which they deemed a negotiation with disobeying people who deserved to be met with war. He even received death threats when he came to Algiers to talk at the Cercle du Progrès, on 22 January 1956. There he heard the ultras (far-right French Algerians) crying from just down the building “Camus au poteau” and “Camus à mort.”
“A Colonizer of Goodwill”
Camus sailed back to France soon after the civil truce fell through. In August of that same year, he received the news that more than 1,200 indigenous Algerians were killed in Philippeville by colonial authorities. The executions came in reprisal for a massacre in which over a hundred Pieds-noirs (as well as indigenous Algerians who were thought to be loyal to the French government) were killed by a mob affiliated to the FLN. Saddened, Camus wrote to his Algiers friend Brua: “No matter what justified resentments may be felt after the events at Philippeville, it is up to the rest of us to keep our cool, we French adults who are politically more aware of historical realities than these ignorant and so easily cruel masses.” Later in October, he wrote to Aziz Kessous, an Algerian socialist, “I suffer from Algeria at present, as others suffer from the lungs.”
For all his anguish, however, Camus still held on to a shared Algeria—a colonial one—as an article of faith. Little else was conceivable; but not independence. After the war, he called for forming an inclusive leadership containing both French and, at last, Algerian members to lead Algeria to become a member of a federation of French territories. In March 1958, he met with Charles de Gaulle, who was to become president of France the following December, and discussed his federalist proposal and granting Algerians French citizenship at last. Camus told his wife that de Gaulle, who disapproved of his suggestion, bluntly replied, “Right, and we will have fifty [N-word] in the Chamber of Deputies."
De Gaulle took the helm of the French army after a coup d’état in May 1958, becoming president of the Fifth Republic later. The coup d’état, which was carried out by conservative forces for fear of losing colonial Algeria, had taken place amid cheers in the streets of Algiers. Touched by seeing the indigenous protesting alongside the Europeans in favor of l’Algérie française, Camus wrote: “Great changes are taking place in the mind of Algerians.” But after his friend Charles Poncet told him how the army, who had organized the marches all along, rounded those “Arabs” up from the countryside and brought them to protest, Camus said ruefully: “If that is what is happening, it is all over.”
Camus often proved to be naïve and, as his childhood friend Jean de Maisonseul told him the last time they had met in 1959, he had been living too far from Algiers to grasp certain aspects of the conflict. For example, Camus failed to notice that while the majority of French Algerians opposed the independence, they only did so because they deemed it inconceivable to let go of the colony after so long a colonial history, and there was no question of redistributing wealth, the very bulk of which belonged to the settlers. To the French Algerians, they had built Algeria, a pristine land that was devoid of past before their arrival (or a “terre sans passé,” as Camus would write). And their all-or-nothing attitude, which fanatically favored keeping Algeria wholly French—having even obstructed attempts at reform such as the 1936 Blum–Viollette proposal or the 1919 Jonnart Law—had brought the conflict too deep into the impasse, for it echoed just as radical a stance from the other side among the overwhelming majority of indigenous Algerians, who now pleaded for an Algerian Algeria through a total re-appropriation of land and wealth.
The Jewish-Tunisian writer Albert Memmi’s claim that Camus was a “colonisateur de bonne volonté” (“a colonizer of goodwill”) perhaps describes Camus best: although not a settler, he was a French Algerian who, while opposing violence, could not help but stand up for the same cause behind that violence, colonialism.
“A Land Without a Past”
Camus’s most renowned literary essays were doubtless the lyrical ones in which he handsomely describes the land in his country of birth, such as in the L’Été or Noces collections. To Camus, those lands bore no past, him being a “first man” who had to reinvent himself there; and even when they did, like Tipasa with its Roman ruins, their past is bound to be fatally conquered and erased by time and nature, here epitomized by the Algerian sun impetuously battering those ruins and gnawing them. (It drew from Camus’s broader philosophical approach, however, that eventually all things were to become powerless and insignificant in the face of ever-expansive time. Thus, he wrote: “I was poised midway between poverty and sunshine. Poverty prevented me from judging that all was well in the world and in history; the sun taught me that history is not everything.”)
Yet Camus’s lyricism was not devoid of politics. In a 1982 interview, the celebrated Algerian author Kateb Yacine, whose books often touched on colonialism, commented on this aspect of Camus’s oeuvre rather plaintively: “We can easily see that Camus’s most beautiful pages are about Tipasa, the beach, the landscape…, but there is no people. We don’t see the Algerian people.” To Kateb, Camus had a distant vision of the people with whom he did not even share the language. In fact, while most of Camus’s works are set in Algeria, one would hardly ever come across native characters. And when such is the case, like in L’Étranger, those characters are prone to be nameless and antagonistic.
In 2013, Kamel Daoud, an Algerian author as well, published The Meursault Investigation, in which he made it the quest of the protagonist, Harun, to find Meursault, the killer of the mere “Arab” in L’Étranger. Most importantly, however, Harun—unlike Meursault—came to name his brother, Musa, who had been a victim of a gratuitous double death: in addition to being murdered, he was nameless. To Harun, his brother’s fate bordered on that of Friday in Daniel Defoe’s The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe: Friday, too, was nameless and likewise was murdered on a conquered beach. Daoud’s début novel, which also critiqued post-colonial Algeria, soon knew great success as it appealed to many readers, not least Camus’s, and addressed the all too colonial proclivity to erase the indigenous.
To Camus, Algeria was constituted by Europeans, mainly the French, and merely the “Arabs” or “Muslims,” whereas the country’s indigenous majority certainly more than that. Such categorization, however, drew from the typical stratification of the Algerian colonial society: to be either white (European) or not (Berber, Arab, Chaoui, and other indigenous ethnicities).
Yet not all Algerian literati accused Camus of willful neglect. Mouloud Mammeri, an Algerian author and anthropologist, also commented on Camus’s lack of inclusion of indigenous characters, which he remarked was part of the author’s “deep sincerity.” In a 1972 interview, Mammeri explained that Camus could not escape his objective condition: “He could not, despite everything, not be the son of petits-blancs of Algeria.” Likewise, the absence of indigenous characters, who at the very most would constitute decorative complements in Camus’s works, was sincere insofar as it reflected their real-life segregation in colonial society. “In reality, his profound life wasn’t the same as theirs, whether we like it or not."
Camus was sensitive to the segregation that the Pieds-noirs underwent in mainland France for not being “totally French”—an ordeal he experienced firsthand in the Paris milieus. Yet his intimate statements, however sarcastic, sometimes betrayed the general attitude of scorn held toward the indigenous people. Once, he noted to Jean Grenier: “The thing that is the most amusing, when you know how completely anti-Semitic the European Algerians are, is their present admiration for Israel. ‘Those people know the way to deal with the Arabs,’ they say." Another time, he joked about how the Pieds-noirs had named the revolver a “French-Arab dictionary”—a jest that systematically alludes to the wordless encounter between Meursault and the Arab in L’Étranger.
Camus also mentions the “lands without a past” in his posthumous novel, Le Premier homme. Discussing the novel earlier in 1954 with the Swiss journalist Franck Jotterand, Camus was asked about traditions in those lands. “In general they are not very strong, they quickly disappear, not resisting the climate,” he replied. Even in his pro-peace journalism at L’Express in the mid-1950s, he crudely wrote once: “Algeria is not France, it is not even Algeria.” (Camus left L’Express in January 1956, after it became clear that the editorial line was favoring the independence of Algeria.)
“Because I am French”
In Herbert R. Lottman’s biography of Camus, Suzanne Agnely, Camus’s secretary at the offices of Éditions Gallimard (Camus’s publisher), recounted perhaps the author’s most straightforward comment on the Algerian question—one which Camus never dared state publicly. Agnely tells the story of a “longtime friend from Algeria” who walked into the offices asking to see Camus. At the behest of Camus, who had been avoiding unsolicited encounters, she told the nameless visitor that Camus was not in. Just then, however, Camus walked out of his office. The two men then argued violently in front of Agnely, the visitor excoriating Camus for not defending the Algerian liberation movement and Camus replying that he could not stand for violence, to which the visitor answered that Camus had nonetheless approved of such violence during the occupation of Paris.
After dismissing the man, Camus turned to Agnely and, in a different intonation, he explained: “It is true that I was not shocked by the resistance to the Nazis, because I am French and my country was occupied. I should accept the Algerian resistance, too, but I am French." To Camus, the Algerian liberation movement, although aspiring to justice, had resorted to terrorism.
When Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957, he knew he could no longer eschew the Algerian question now that he would stand on such a high podium. On his way to the Swedish capital for the ceremonials, he was handed a copy of the Stockholm newspaper Dagens Nyheter folded as to show a particular story. It questioned the laureate’s silence about the political pressing issue in his country of birth, while the author had been known for always speaking out for freedom elsewhere in the world (the latest case being the independence of Hungary from the Soviet Union the previous year). During his festive stay in Sweden, he attempted to remain apolitical, but it proved Sisyphean a task.
Again, Camus was brought to comment on the matter, this time in a talk at the University of Stockholm before a larger and younger audience. An intrepid young student stood up and called the writer to account for his “silence” on the Algerian struggle, noting the contrast with Camus’s advocacy for similar causes in other countries; the student himself identified as Algerian. Because it was in French, Le Monde was the only newspaper present to have transcribed Camus’s intervention.
“I have been silent for a year and eight months, which does not mean that I have stopped acting,” Camus began. “I have been and still am in favor of a fair Algeria, where the two populations must live in peace and equality.” Level-headedly, the author went on to talk about granting democracy to Algeria at long last, until he expressed his “répugnance” at having to give his reasons publicly in such manner. Then he cracked: “I must also condemn a terrorism which takes place blindly, in the streets of Algiers for instance, and which one day may strike my mother or my family. I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice.”
While critics received the statement as a bombshell, his friends argued that Le Monde misquoted Camus, which the newspaper aggressively denied. A year earlier, however, Camus had made much a resembling comment to Emmanuel Roblès, in which he concluded: “I love justice, but I also love my mother." 
Once again, Camus’s detractors called him on his double standard. They reminded him of when, for example, he wrote that “justice must be redeemed with men’s blood” during Nazi occupation and that “nothing is given to man, and the little which is his to conquer is paid for by unjust deaths." But Camus, also the author of a play titled Les Justes, seemed to have taken on a different stance already. In fact, Camus’s political turnabout stemmed from a context much broader than the Algerian War, when he published L’Homme révolté in 1951. The event was of such importance that it cost him his friendship with Sartre and other intellectuals, mostly on the left.
Camus held freedom as the dearest of all life’s notions: he considered the myth of Prometheus to be humanity’s fundamental one and believed that only freedom (through revolt) could permit the betterment of the human condition; not dictates from a ruling class whatsoever. However, in his book, he came to favor an individualistic type of revolt (thus freedom) over the collective one, as the late crimes of Stalinism were brought to bear upon his position against collectivism. Critics on the left, including Sartre, found the book appalling and historically irrelevant, and Francis Jeanson’s critique in Les Temps Modernes (whose editor was Sartre) decried the dilettantism of Camus’s late philosophical effort. The review pointed out that the book only received praise in the right-wing press and cast doubts on whether Camus, a onetime Communist Party member, was still left-wing. In response, Camus wrote, “If the truth were to be on the right, then I am right-wing.”
Camus, The Stranger
Aged forty-four, Camus was the second youngest author to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, after Rudyard Kipling, who received it in 1907 at the age of forty-one. Thus, it remains tempting to say that, had he lived longer, he might have changed his viewpoint on the Algerian question, which had nagged him for so long. Yet, besides sharing the achievement of the grandiose prize at relative youth, Camus appeared to share Kipling’s belief in the white man’s burden as well.
Throughout his life, Camus defended the ideal that France, through colonialism even, was the bearer of civilization and of the Rights of Man, although he himself once regretted that it held “the bludgeon of repression” in its other hand. He agreed with the French ethnologist Germaine Tillion that an independent Algeria was inherently prone to economic weakness—despite the significant discoveries of oil fields there during the 1950s—to say nothing of culture. After the Algerian question reached international concerns, he saw in the independence movement a mere pawn in the bigger scheme of “Arab imperialism,” instigated by Egypt and supported by the Soviets to “encircle Europe from the South."
But he hadn’t lived long enough to witness Algeria’s leading role in the Non-Aligned Movement and its tiers-mondiste activism after its independence either. Even when Charles de Gaulle announced the right of Algerians to self-determination on 16 September 1959, Camus’s position remained unwavering. “If there’s a referendum on the Algerian question, I’ll campaign against the independence in the Algerian press,” he told friends who asked him to speak out at last.
Camus died in a car accident in France on 4 January 1960. A street near his birthplace in Algeria was named after him, but following the independence of 5 July 1962, his name on that street was taken down. Camus would subsequently be disowned by independent Algeria, and his traces, if not already erased, were neglected. Until the present day, visiting enthusiasts take great pains to localize his childhood apartment in the Algiers poor neighborhood of Belcourt, which bears no indication whatsoever to suggest that the Nobel Prize laureate had once lived there. Likewise, his high school in Bab el Oued, now Lycée Émir Abdelkader (renamed after the nineteenth-century anti-colonial political and military leader), also bears no signal of Camus’s study there. His childhood intimate, Jean de Maisonseul, a Belcourt Pied-noir who had sided with the FLN and was arrested by French authorities, was appointed curator of the Musée National des Beaux Arts of Algiers after the independence and later directed the Insitut d’Urbanisme of the University of Algiers until 1975.
Beyond the Algerian question, however, Camus’s self-positioning was of such fugacity that some on the left called him reactionary, while most of the right saw in him a latent leftist; to atheists, he still embodied Catholic principles, whereas the religious deplored his utmost absurdist heresy. His lifelong disavowal of existentialism embodies the trouble of pinning him down; so much so that even when he was awarded the Nobel Prize by the secretary of the Swedish Academy, Anders Österling, Camus was presented as an existentialist.
Today, many Algerian readers, particularly among the youth, still find in Camus a resonance of universal proportions, above time-limited politics and nationalistic preferences. Defending him as even-handed, some resort to his journalism and essays in which he decried the indigenous’ condition under colonial rule and which are still sold in large numbers among his other books in Algerian bookshops. Yet, like his short-story artist Jonas, Camus died after having left behind him an inextricable oeuvre which one could not know whether to read as “solitaire” or “solidaire.”
 Herbert R. Lottman, “Insurrection,” in Albert Camus: A Biography, (Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1979) 542.
 Olivier Todd, “November 1, 1954” in Albert Camus: A Life, (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997) 325.
 Ibid., 387.
 René Vautier, Déjà le sang de Mai ensemençait Novembre, 1982.
 Paul Vecchiali, Mouloud Mammeri et la vision de l'Algérie de Camus, 1974.
 Olivier Todd, Albert Camus: A Life, 331
 Herbert R. Lottman, Albert Camus: A Biography, 624.
 Emmanuel Roblès, Albert Camus et la trêve civile, (Celfan Edition Monographics, 1988) 52.
 Albert Camus, “La nuit de la vérité,“ Combat, 25 August 1944.
 Albert Camus, “Algérie 1958,” Actuelles III, Éditions Gallimard (1958) : 204.