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26 February 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 4:06pm

Jean Daniel and the the lost age of the intellectual

On the life of the French editor and writer, who has died aged 99.

By Jonathan Derbyshire

After the news broke on 19 February of the death, at the age of 99, of the French editor and writer Jean Daniel, the Élysée Palace issued a statement. Daniel, it said, would be remembered for his promotion of “social-democratic ideas” and for the Nouvel Observateur, the magazine that he co-founded in 1964, known as the “left’s key weekly”. Meanwhile  Le Monde quoted someone “close to Emmanuel Macron” describing Daniel as a “totemic figure of the moral left”.

Macron will attend a memorial service for Daniel on 28 February – a way, one Le Monde columnist suggested waspishly, for him to reacquaint himself with the “happy memory of social democracy”. It remains to be seen how enthusiastically the president will lay claim to the tradition known as the deuxième gauche, or the “second left”, which Daniel did as much as anyone to uphold. But Macron’s presence at the service is at least a reminder of the central role Daniel played as one of the animateurs of postwar intellectual life in France. It also speaks to the influence on the French left of the decentralising, pro-market positions championed by Daniel and associated with Pierre Mendès France, who was premier in the mid-1950s, and his dauphins, Michel Rocard and Jacques Delors. (Traces of Mendèsisme today survive in French politics in Macron’s controversial supply-side reforms, but not in the Socialist Party, which is now a miserable and denuded husk, both intellectually and electorally.)

Daniel was unusual, among his peers, in having never belonged to or aligned himself with the French Communist Party (PCF), and under him the Nouvel Obs, as it was then known, became the house journal of the non-Communist left. Nonetheless, he was criticised for being too indulgent towards Moscow’s French satellites, such as the PCF, by those of his friends who had recanted their party membership. Yet Daniel also became the target in the mid-1970s of virulent attacks from Georges Marchais, the leader of the French Communists, for defending the Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, following the publication of The Gulag Archipelago, an account of the depredations of the Soviet prison camp system. Daniel was even denounced for “left anti-Sovietism” in the Russian newspaper Pravda.

In a tribute to Daniel in 2003, the historian Pierre Nora wrote that the most important intellectual debates on the left found in him their perfect interpreter. As well as his treatment of the “Communist question”, Daniel, who was Jewish, was an early supporter of a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. But the issue on which his dialectical dexterity was shown to its fullest extent was the struggle for Algerian independence in the late 1950s and early 1960s. 

It was over Algeria that Daniel suffered what Nora called a “double rupture” with the two defining intellectual influences of his life: Albert Camus, who was, like Daniel, a French Algerian or pied-noir; and Jean-Paul Sartre.

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After first reporting on Algeria for the French magazine L’Express in 1954, Daniel became convinced that France would sooner or later have to negotiate with the independence movement. That position would earn him death threats from the right-wing paramilitaries of the Organisation Armée Secrète. 

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In 1957, the Algerian question also broke his long friendship with Camus, who believed that building an independent Arab state in Algeria would mean sacrificing French Algerians. Yet three years later Daniel cited concerns for the pieds-noirs when he refused Sartre’s invitation to sign the Manifesto of the 121, an open letter from intellectuals urging the French government to recognise the legitimacy of the Algerian independence struggle. 

Despite these wrenching episodes, Camus and Sartre continued to embody for Daniel a certain ideal of intellectual practice. “I belong to a generation,” he once said, “which refused to choose between literature and philosophy, and between political engagement and journalism. All my life I have tried to be present in each of these domains.”

It’s tempting to say that this stirring vision of the “universal” intellectual will die with Daniel. But in truth it was already unravelling when Sartre died in 1980. 

That year, Nora launched Le Débat, a journal that would channel the spirit of its age as reliably as the Nouvel Obs once did. In his inaugural editorial, Nora declared that the “civic role of the intellectual” in France was dead. The moment of the “oracular” thinker whose authority is a function entirely of the power of his or her voice had passed. Institutional legitimacy had replaced “personal intuition and the Café de Flore”, Nora wrote, referring to one of Sartre’s favourite haunts.

Daniel believed that the task of his magazine was to help the left “find itself”. Nora, by contrast, abjured the call to action. The modern intellectual, he argued, would be an analyst, not a partisan. 

The French thinkers best known around the world today are economists such as Thomas Piketty or Esther Duflo. At the time of Daniel’s passing, their success shows that the triumph of Nora’s model is complete.

This article appears in the 26 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The death of privacy