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Camus stirs up debate 50 years after his death

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2010-01-05

On January 4, 1960, French writer, philosopher and journalist Albert Camus died in a car accident. Fifty years on, French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plan to move his remains into Paris’s Panthéon is stirring up controversy.

On January 4, 1960, Albert Camus died at the age of 47 in a car accident, cutting short the life of the iconic French writer, philosopher and journalist whose legacy lives on today. In 1957, the author of “L’étranger” (“The Stranger”, 1942) and “La Peste” (“The Plague”, 1947) became the second-youngest writer ever to receive the Nobel Prize for literature. He remains to this day the laureate who lived the shortest life.

In the lead up to the 50-year anniversary of his death, Camus’ name has once again been at the forefront of public debate, but this time not for his writing and philosophical views. French President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed in November to move the author’s remains into the Panthéon, a vast monument in the capital where France’s most honoured and revered individuals are buried in Paris. According to Sarkozy, “This would be an extraordinary symbol.”

Despite the great honour, the plan has come up against stiff resistance from Camus’s family. According to the newspaper “Le Monde”, Camus’s son Jean found the idea of transferring his father’s body to be an “aberration” saying it was down to political “manoeuvering”.

Political capital?

Some commentators in Paris have put forth that Sarkozy is attempting to associate himself with the famed thinker for his own ends. Those suspicious of Sarkozy’s intentions believe the French president is trying to appeal to the left-wing vote, as the socialists always claimed the thinker as one of their own. Others believe that Sarkozy is trying to garner some reflected glory, with Camus often cited as an example of the success of France’s modern education system.

Literary journalist Alain-Gérard Slama explained on FRANCE 24, “It is very tempting to evoke Camus in the sense that….he is seen as transcending the divisions of right and left.”

However, Albert Camus was not a man for decoration. Alain-Gérard Slama, columnist for La Figaro, explains, “When Camus received the Nobel Prize, he said it was too much for him."

The debate could potentially be about to come to a head, with speculation rife that the philosopher’s daughter, Catherine Camus, will shortly make a final decision on behalf of the family.

A symbol of France’s modern Republican school

Albert Camus came from a different background to that of his intellectual peers in France, who were largely from the Parisian elite. Camus frequently felt uncomfortable in the intellectual circles in which he moved due to his birth and background in Algeria, which meant that he was referred to by some as a 'pied-noir' (a 'black foot', a term used for the colonists from Algeria). He was born in Algeria in 1913, growing up in a working-class neighbourhood of Algiers with two brothers and his mother who were all illiterate. While at primary school, a teacher, Louis Germain, spotted his talent and pushed him to continue his studies.

In 1940, Camus moved to Paris where he developed his philosophy in the "cycle de l'absurde." In this trilogy he argues that man cannot find coherence in the world, and therefore has no other choice but to revolt.

In 1943, he joined the Resistance and ran the underground newspaper “Combat.” In 1945 he was one of the only public figures to denounce the use of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima.

After the war, Camus continued to distinguish himself in the field of political commentary. A left-wing thinker, he accused the Soviet Union of drifting towards totalitarianism – an opinion that sparked a dispute with his friend and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. A Frenchman from Algeria, Camus provoked the ire of the French left – which supported the Algerian struggle for independence – by denouncing terrorism, no matter the cause.

In 1957, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature for a body of work that examines the problems confronted by “man’s conscience.” While accepting the prize, he paid vibrant homage to the schoolteacher who had inspired him. Those comments would go on to earn Camus his status as a prime example of the success of France’s education system, with its tradition of free, mandatory, secular public education. Camus died three years later.

Despite the passing of time, Camus’s works remain hugely important in France and are still studied to this day in French schools.

Date created : 2010-01-04


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