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Politics

ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Un désobéissant nommé Jeanson

by Rosa Moussaoui

An Insubordinate Named Francis Jeanson

Translated Thursday 3 September 2009, by Kieran O’Meara and reviewed by Henry Crapo

Anticolonialism. The philosopher Francis Jeanson, founder of a support network for the FLN during the Algerian War, died on Saturday at the age of eighty-seven.

"I was incapable of opposing a war of national liberation". It was in these implacable terms that Francis Jeanson, writing in the Algerian daily El Watan in 1991, summed up his part in the resistance that made him a symbol of anti-colonial struggle. The founder of a network known as the "suitcase carriers" (les porteurs de valise) which was involved in directly supporting the FLN during the Algerian War, died last Saturday near Bordeaux at the age of eighty-seven, following a long illness.

His life was marked by disobedience from an early age. At twenty-one Francis Jeanson fled France to escape the STO. [1] Arrested in Spain, he was interned for several months in the camps of the Franco regime before he could join the Free French Forces of North Africa in 1943. In 1945, as a reporter for the Communist daily newspaper Alger républicain (Republican Algiers), he met Albert Camus. In that period, he aligned himself very closely with Sartre, whose existentialism he adopted, and to whom he would later devote several books. Sartre put him in charge of Les Temps Modernes. The review set down its line clearly and unambiguously from 1955 onwards. A headline announced, "Algeria is not France", six months after the uprising began. That same year, Francis Jeanson published L’Algérie hors la loi [2] with his wife Colette - an indictment of a colonial system which thrived on the exclusion and oppression of, and contempt for "the natives". A situation which the philosopher judged to be "abject".

Two years later, he founded a support network for the FLN. On the left the dirty war created deep divisions. In 1956, the vote to grant special powers to the Socialist government of Guy Mollet stunned and disoriented a section of the Communist movement. Activists, from varied backgrounds and perspectives, were no longer content with the lone slogan "Peace in Algeria" and the "mass action" promoted by a Communist Party which was quite unwilling at that time to give its official seal of approval to clandestine "individual action".

"Francis Jeanson succeeded in linking together very diverse currents," recalls Rabah Bouaziz, a former leader of the Federation of the FLN in France. "Catholics; the worker-priests around Father Robert Davezies; Communists defying the line of their party, such as Henri Curiel; Third-Worldists; as well as intellectuals disillusioned by the positions held by the official Left - they all co-existed side by side in the network." What they all had in common was the belief that the cause of the insurgents was just, and that, in offering them support, they were defending in the best possible way the values of liberty, equality, and fraternity, which France claimed as her own. "At the beginning of the war, I became involved by taking part in legal activities against it," said Hélène Cuénat, a member of the network. "Then it became clear that such activity was leading nowhere. The war continued. It seemed to me that there was only one thing left to be done: to line up on the side of a people fighting colonialism." [3] Michel Muller, a journalist with l’Humanité, who joined the network in Strasbourg in 1958 adds, "We rejected the contempt in which the Algerians were held, and we protested against the torture carried out in the name of France."

A Highly Organised Network

Transferring funds collected by the FLN to Switzerland, providing safe-houses for pro-Independence activists, producing forged identity papers, smuggling militants across the German border... The network provided a precious life-line to the FLN until it was broken up in February 1960, when the police arrested 23 "suitcase carriers"— 17 "metropolitan French", along with 6 "Muslims". The clandestine activity continued, however, under the supervision of Henry Curiel, who would himself be arrested on the 20th of October 1960.

On the 5th of September of the same year these activists, accused of a "breach of National Security", went on trial before a military tribunal. The same day saw the publication of an open letter from 121 intellectuals, calling for the "right to insubordination". Having gone into hiding, Jeanson was sentenced in absentia to ten years in prison without remission. Living underground, he gave an account of his actions in Notre Guerre ("Our War"), a work which was banned and seized by the police immediately after its publication. However, repression, mud-slinging from the reactionary press and accusations of treason was to be of little effect. The trial of the network and the Manifesto of the 121 were to be a decisive turning-point. Without approving "methods resorted to by the accused", the PCF offered them their support. In the eyes of more and more of the French, Algerian independence was to appear to be inevitable from then on. Such public awareness was brought into being by the actions of the suitcase-carriers, who were very much a minority, as much as by the political work carried out by other promoters of the anti-colonial cause.

It was not until 1966 that Francis Jeanson was himself officially pardoned. Jeanson, known as "Vincent" to his comrades during his years underground, is remembered by those who knew him as a man of integrity, free, determined, and a man who knew his own mind. A politically active intellectual, he was convinced that no colonial project whatsoever could be credited with even the least
"positive aspect".

[1Translator’s footnote- "Service de Travail Obligatoire"- a programme of forced labour imposed on the population of occupied France during the Second World War by the Nazis.

[2Lawless Algeria

[3Le Procès du réseau Jeanson, présenté par Marcel Péju, François Maspero, Paris, 1961.


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