In an effort to strengthen to the French national identity president Nicholas Sarkozy has named writer Albert Camus to the Pantheon, the final resting place for social and intellectual heroes of the Republic.
Had a socialist president made the call the media would be heralding a cultural event of planetary importance. But Sarkozy is a conservative and self-serving leftists have challenged the move, causing Catherine Camus to say her father has been transformed into an "anti-Sarkozy missile."
With globalism diluting national cultures, the leftist attempt to jack the Camus literary patrimony is bad for France, bad for those who look to Paris as a beacon of artistic and intellectual freedom, and bad for a European socialist movement that reached into its old Cold War bag of tricks to smear Sarkozy while projecting itself as a progressive force to emerging democracies.
Efforts by the left to claim Camus as one of theirs, which have been suspect and problematic to many all along, become even more so considering the fact that in the years prior to winning the 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature his work was featured prominently in a publication funded by the US Central Intelligence Agency as part of their Cold War effort to counterpoise Kremlin-backed orthodox communist philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre.
The nomination also provides some interesting insight on the social graph that intertwines Franco-American relations. Former US diplomat Frank Wisner, Jr., whose father Frank was deputy director of the CIA and architect of the agency program that controlled Encounter, the leading international literary publication of its time which featured Camus on its cover, is married to Sarkozy's former stepmother.
While some biographers and historians have characterized Camus as an existentialist philosopher and a supporter of communist and socialist causes the author himself is on the record as denying both. His brief flirtation with communism while a student in French Algeria got him expelled from the party for independent thinking and... alleged Trotsky sympathies.
Others have suggested he was an individualist, iconoclastic, a loose cannon politically who was a product of the popular culture that existed in the working class neighborhood of Algiers where he grew up. The same popular culture that produced World Middleweight Champion Marcel Cerdan, one of the few to ever defeat Tony Zale.
Camus attended the University of Algiers as a football (soccer) jock, playing goaltender on the college team until tuberculosis forced him to hang it up. It was only then that he transferred his energies to writing from the perspective of the common man, not the effete intellectuals of the Paris salons. His most famous novel, The Stranger, made into a film by Italian director Luchino Visconti, is an example of that.
This populist intellectual voice has always eluded conservative French leaders in their attempt to fuse a democratic corporativist alliance between the underclass and the elite. Equally, it has also eluded the left, which has yet to recover from its defeat by Sarkozy after selling out to the style of retail politics popularized by Bill and Hillary Clinton in the United States.
Rally. Action. Movement. Whatever name the French right has given it, the effort always falls short. It becomes more elusive for a France that is effectively a post-industrial society and thus more seductive to a tenacious, sometimes mercurial Sarkozy who seeks that voice to build a more inclusive society within the framework of the French state for future generations.
While the left snivels over the literary Camus, the compte rendu on the author is that of an individual who touched the world in an effort to promote the universal rights of man implicit in the French social contract. In speeches and articles he called out human rights abuses and labor camps in the Soviet Union long before Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago was smuggled out.
And he was critical both in his speeches and articles of what my late friend George Bailey called "the virtuosi system," which the Kremlin used to build international communist superstars like Nobel Winners Sartre and H-bomb pioneer Andrei Sakharov so long as they followed the party line even when it meant staying quiet about "Stalin's Holocaust." Camus message would finally resonate with Sakharov, who became an advocate for human rights, as Bailey points out in his biography of the Soviet physicist.
Albert Camus is part of the French cultural patrimony and he belongs in the Pantheon. Sarkozy would be remiss if, as president, he does not redouble his efforts to put him there. As for the French left, they ought to realize it's time to tone down the culture of complaint. The next time they gain power they can start a Twitter campaign to put Sartre in the Pantheon and see if it goes viral...