Jean Daniel, who turned eighty-five in early July, has a strong claim to being France’s most eminent journalist. The editorial director of Le Nouvel Observateur, the center-left weekly he founded in 1964, Daniel has played a role in French political society that has no equivalent in American letters, with the possible exception of Walter Lippmann. He has not only reported on some of the major conflicts of his time—the French-Algerian war, the Congo, the cold war, the question of Israel-Palestine—he has earned the trust and respect of statesmen from Pierre Mendès-France and François Mitterrand to David Ben-Gurion and Ahmed Ben Bella, without sacrificing his independence as a commentator.
Indeed, it is as a commentator that Daniel has achieved his greatest distinction. His weekly editorials in Le Nouvel Observateur, which range across politics, literature, theology, and philosophy, are a reminder of a time when journalists were expected not merely to chronicle events but to interpret them in the light of history. Daniel has also published two novels, influenced by the work of his close friend Albert Camus, and a Bildungsroman disguised as a memoir, Le Temps Qui Reste; thousands of pages of journals, collected in several volumes; and over a dozen book-length historical essays on decolonization, nationalism, communism, and religion. Together, they offer an account—by turns introspective and impassioned, somber and hopeful—of the last half-century, as seen by one of its most incisive witnesses.
As a witness, he has offered not only illumination but a moral example as well. As a correspondent in Algiers for L’Express, he was a precocious supporter of Algerian independence; yet unlike Sartre and other French followers of the FLN, he never wrote in praise of anti-colonial violence or third-worldist ideology; as an Algerian-born Jew, he also understood that the aim of Algeria’s rebels was not to establish a revolutionary socialist republic but to resurrect the country’s long-repressed Arab and Muslim identity. He has deplored the brutal treatment by the FLN of the Harkis, the Algerian troops who fought alongside the French; many were left by the French to die after independence, and those who fled to France were coldly received, settled in isolated camps, their children ostracized.
On the French left, Daniel was also an early anti-Communist, repudiating the Soviet Union not in 1956 or in 1968 but in 1939, over the Hitler–Stalin pact. Unlike the former Maoist “new philosophers” of the 1970s, however, he refused to draw an equivalence between Soviet and Nazi totalitarianism or to make a tactical alliance with the right. (Having been close to his housekeeper’s son, Vincent Perez, a young Communist who died in Spain fighting fascism, “I could never bring myself to completely hate Communists.”) And in his longest-running political commitment, Daniel has been both a friend to Israel and a defender of Palestinian rights for nearly a half-century, a trapeze act that he has managed with extraordinary grace.
Daniel’s new book, The Jewish Prison, is subtitled A Rebellious …