Obituary: Jean de Maisonseul

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JEAN PANDRIGUE de Maisonseul's family came from France to Algiers with the conquest of 1830; his great-grandfather was the commander of the port of Algiers under Napoleon III and was associated with the Emperor's idea of creating an Arab kingdom in Algeria; his father was a lawyer who had been a supporter of Dreyfus when the "affaire" had been greeted by a wave of anti-Semitism in Algiers. Thus Jean de Maisonseul (as he was known), born in Algiers in 1912, was from an important family and was a "Frankaouis", a Frenchman from France, and therefore much resented by many of the Europeans in his native town.

Educated at the lycee in Algiers, where he became a close friend of Albert Camus, Maisonseul became devoted to art and to architecture. He studied with Le Corbusier in Paris and worked in an architect's studio in Algiers. He restored many of the Moorish buildings that have survived French colonisation and acted also as a town planner. This last activity became particularly important after an earthquake destroyed much of Orleansville on 9 September 1954. He took charge of reconstruction.

But it was the political situation that began to preoccupy him most. After the nationalist aggressions of November 1954, Maisonseul identified two enemies to a peaceful solution in Algeria: the ultras amongst the French Algerians who wished to maintain their positions by armed force (it was said that they carried a revolver which they called their French- Arab dictionary), and the terrorists amongst the nationalist Algerians who were organising their campaigns with increasing destructive power. He, and others, believed that French and Algerians of goodwill could come together and create a Franco-Algerian state that would serve both communities.

Albert Camus became the effective leader of those who took this position. In Algiers there were the liberals, many of whom, like Maisonseul, were his old friends. Within France there were many intellectuals who put their trust in Pierre Mendes France, the statesman who had made peace in Indo- China and given independence to Tunisia; the elections of 2 January 1956 brought a victory to the Guy Mollett/Mendes France coalition.

The first thing to do was to put an end to the war. Hence was created a committee for a civil truce in Algeria, in which Maisonseul was the leading Algerian member. The word "truce" was used because Camus thought that "peace" had been devalued by recent Communist initiatives.

It fell to Maisonseul to organise a meeting in Algiers. He arranged to use the Grey Hall (although the mayor soon succumbed to pressure from the French administration to withdraw permission), and then to get round the law by calling a private meeting by invitation only at the Cercle du Progres, a Muslim-owned building. He also arranged for representatives of the nationalists to be there.

The meeting was held on 22 January 1956. More than a thousand French and Algerians attended which was an achievement, although there were more French present at a counter-demonstration that called for the deaths of Mendes France, Camus and Maisonseul. The failure of the movement became clear when the Prime Minister, Guy Mollet, came to Algiers on 6 February and was greeted with tomatoes. From then he wished to avoid taking any open initiatives in Algeria.

But the administration wished to take its revenge on Maisonseul. On 25 May 1956 he was arrested for endangering national security. A letter from a woman giving details of Moroccans who supported the Algerian nationalists was found in his office, and it was claimed that in arranging for Algerians to be present at the January meeting he had been helping the terrorists. Camus, back in France, was enraged and wrote two articles in Le Monde supporting his friend.

Maisonseul was in prison for about a month without being able to see anyone. Then he was released on parole. In 1957 it was announced that he should not be prosecuted, but he had to wait until de Gaulle came to power in June 1958 before he was given his full administrative rights. He became the creator of the Musee National des Beaux-Arts in Algiers. He supported the 1962 independence for Algeria and remained at his post, where he installed a magnificent collection of French pictures, including some 300 removed from Algeria during the war. In 1970 he was appointed Director of the Institute of Urbanism in the University of Algiers.

However the evolution of Algerian politics was not to his liking. His close friend the poet Jean Senac, who with a Berber and an Arab had created a trinity of Francophone Algerian writers, was assassinated in 1973. Perhaps there was no place in Algiers for a non-Muslim Algerian.

Together with his wife and daughter he returned to France in 1975, settling in the department of the Ver. He continued to paint (he had had exhibitions in Paris, in 1958 and during the 1960s) and held a major exhibition in Marseilles in 1983. He remained an impressive monument for what might have been in Algeria.

Jean Pandrigue de Maisonseul, architect, town planner, artist: born Algiers 1912; married (one daughter); died Cuers, France 3 June 1999.