It was a time before social media when the quality of ideas actually mattered, before internet trolls and media lynchings. Some day it will probably be called the golden age of journalism. A time when some people believed, along with the philosopher Allan Bloom, that to experience the higher emotions or express complex ideas you needed well-chosen words and an elegant style.
There were a few in the French-language press at that time who represented this elegance of thought and writing. Notable among them was Jean Daniel, who founded Le Nouvel Observateur (now L’Obs) in 1964. Jean Daniel died on February 19 at the venerable age of 99, and France offered him a national tribute the following week. When asked why he had not become a writer or novelist, Jean Daniel replied with his rebellious look: “Because in journalism, I knew I would be the best!” And he was.
When you are born Jewish in an Islamic country and French in the heart of colonial Algeria, there is no escape from current events. Jean Daniel was a friend and compatriot of Albert Camus, and had close ties to the Socialists. Whenever the truth demanded it, he did not hesitate to go against the tide, sometimes even against his own political family. Thus he belonged to that small minority of the left that never succumbed to the totalitarian ideas of Communism. While he loved his homeland, he also did not hesitate to support de Gaulle and the independence of Algeria – even if it meant falling out with his closest friends.
As a correspondent for L’Express, he “covered” decolonization. This brought him to Quebec, long before de Gaulle’s 1967 “Vive le Québec libre!” speech. He was attracted by the first bombs of the Front de Libération du Québec, which saw itself as part of the same current as the Algerian independence struggle. Throughout a career in which he interviewed Kennedy and Castro and was Mitterrand’s confidant, the publisher of Le Nouvel Observateur exercised a kind of moral magisterium in the French and francophone press, prompting this ironic remark from de Gaulle: “You don’t govern France against Le Nouvel Observateur.”
Quebecers may have forgotten this, but Jean Daniel always had a certain affection for them. He never went as far as his friend Michel Rocard,1 and he was not pro-independence, but he would periodically reaffirm that the “Quebec people” had a right to national recognition. “Quebecers are more than a community, they are a people,” he wrote in 1997, in the midst of the post-referendum backlash.
Throughout his career, Jean Daniel tried as best he could to reconcile his left-wing ideals with a visceral attachment to his French identity. Just as he did not succumb to the sirens of Communism, he did not succumb to those of multiculturalism either. “We thought that progress would make the nation obsolete, but the opposite has happened,” he told me in an interview. He even saw the national idea as “the hard, irreducible core of a form of civilization that refuses to disappear.”
This is why, even in his virulent criticism of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front, he always stressed the importance of controlling immigration flows and not exceeding what he – along with his friend the great anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss – called the thresholds of intolerance. “There should not be any? It doesn’t matter. There are,” he said. He criticized politicians for failing to take these thresholds into account and, in one of those prophetic phrases that became his specialty, he wrote – in 1983! – that “our politicians’ antiracist rhetoric is disarmingly full of humanitarian platitudes and generous do-good-ism.”
In contrast to today’s conventional wisdom, Jean Daniel did not confuse racism, “the justification of an act of violence in the name of the postulated superiority of a race,” with xenophobia, which expresses “a degree of rejection of the foreigner, which may sometimes be motivated only by legitimate concern for one’s own protection.” Himself uprooted from Algeria, he cherished with the philosopher Simone Weil the importance of roots. “I do not believe that the civilization born of the cathedrals and the Revolution can accommodate an inward-looking focus on ethnic communities that I would call ‘differentialist,’” he said. But he was no exception to the rule that no one is a prophet in their own land. Instead of dealing with the problems posed by immigration, “we have hidden our face,” he acknowledged as early as 1992.2
Sensitive to the importance of religions, which he knew had never disappeared, he defined himself as “the most religious of unbelievers.” His self-confidence sometimes spilled over into arrogance, as when he criticized the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn for his anti-Communism – for which he was reprimanded by Raymond Aron.
The older he got, the more Jean Daniel celebrated the importance of the national bond. It was perhaps his way of paying tribute to his mentor Camus, who observed that “each generation doubtless feels called upon to reform the world. Mine knows that it will not reform it, but its task is perhaps even greater. It consists in preventing the world from destroying itself.”
1 Leading Socialist politician and Prime Minister from 1988 to 1991.
2 In his memoir La Blessure (Paris: Grasset, 1992).