Henri Alleg: Journalist who fought for Algerian independence

 

Although forever identified with Algeria and its former colonial ruler France, Henri Alleg was originally a Londoner, his Russian Jewish grandparents having fled the poverty and pogroms of the 19th century to install themselves in the East End.

At the end of the First World War Alleg's newly married parents decided to follow the well-trodden path to a new life in the United States, but first went to Paris for their honeymoon. There, the young couple lost the jewellery which constituted their savings, but also fell in love with the joie de vivre of Paris. Alleg's father set up as tailor in near the Place de la République. The young Henri didn't excel at school, was an ardent supporter of the defeated Spanish Republicans, began to dream of travel.

Alleg arrived in Algiers in 1939. Like his parents' trip to Paris, his visit was originally conceived as first stop on a much longer journey: he wanted to see the world via youth hostelling, stowing away if necessary. Like many French pieds noirs, he was entranced by the light, the colour, the smell of brochettes, the song of caged birds and the joie de vivre of the then French administrative territory. Alleg was also struck by the poverty and the beggars at the margins.

The young Alleg was drawn too to Algerians, who he felt welcomed him particularly as an open-minded Parisian rather than colonialist, and one who addressed them by the respectful vous form of you, rather than the familiar tu used for children, social inferiors and natives.

In Algiers Alleg began to work for trade unions, then the Communist party newspaper Alger Républicain, which, in spite of the ambivalence of the French Communists to the simmering Algerian independence movement, was seen as anti colonialist and thus dissident. By 1955, when the paper was banned, Alleg had become its editor. Like many of the French sympathisers of the independence struggle, about to enter its bloodiest years, Alleg went into hiding. In 1957 the 10th Parachute Division under General Massu took over the policing of the insurgency, the period described as the Battle of Algiers, and, against a backdrop of terrorist bomb outrages of civilian targets, began a ruthlessly successful repression.

On 12 June Alleg was caught in a trap visiting the apartment of the pro-FLN mathematics teacher Maurice Audin, who had been arrested the previous day, and taken by the paras to the interrogation centre of El Biar, in Algiers. There he was tortured with beatings, water and electricity – the sinisterly famous Gegene portable generator – for a month, along with other prisoners who were summarily executed.

That Alleg escaped this fate was probably in part due to the outcry raised in Paris and Algiers by the tireless efforts of his wife. Instead he was transferred to the internment camp of Lodi and subsequently to the civilian prison of Barberousse, location of the guillotine which despatched hundreds of convicted terrorists, before being sent to a prison in Brittany – which he likened to a holiday camp in comparison – to spend the rest of a 10-year sentence for illegal publishing. Escaping from the prison hospital he made his way to Czechoslovakia, where he awaited the amnesty at the end of the Algerian war.

While interned on release from El Biar, Alleg wrote at high speed a manuscript describing his torture in calm, precise and horrifying detail, naming the soldiers responsible, and succeeded in smuggling it out to Paris, where it was published in book form as La Question in February 1958. Banned and seized by the French police, it was republished immediately with a foreword by the philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, and went on to become one of the most famous documentations of French military torture in Algeria, publicity in significant measure responsible for the De Gaulle government's decision to abandon Algeria in 1962.

In August that year Alleg returned to newly independent Algeria, a rare arrival at an airport still crammed with fleeing Europeans, and began to republish Alger Républicain. In November 1962, three months after independence, the new FLN government declared a one-party state and banned the Algerian Communist Party; Alleg became once again a member of a clandestine organisation, in the new homeland he had helped create.

Alger Républicain began to attract condemnation for its exposés of government officials and cronies acquiring luxurious confiscated houses at minute prices. When all press activity was placed under the aegis of the single ruling party, Alger Républicain was forcibly absorbed into a new state newspaper, El Moudjahid. By the time the first president, Ahmed Ben Bella, was overthrown by a military coup led by Colonel Houari Boumediene, Alleg had seen the writing on the wall and left for Paris. Shortly after a wave of xenophobic repression unfurled, and Alleg observed "with a sort of nausea" the photographs of arrested French communists, some subsequently tortured, paraded triumphantly on the front page of El Moudhahid.

In Paris Alleg continued writing, books such as Requiem for Uncle Sam and journalism for the communist paper Humanité, whose editorial board he eventually joined. He was a fixture of the great annual jamboree of the French far left, the Fete de l'Humanité, until the end.

Much saddened by the death of his beloved wife Gilberte, Alleg was a modest and unassuming figure. When I interviewed him aged 90 in 2011, he insisted on making the train journey from his home to a café by the Place Denfert Rochereau, instead of letting me come to him. In an Algiers he still visited occasionally, there was speculation that his name, like that of Maurice Audin, should finally be given to a street, or even a boulevard.

Philip Sweeney

Henri Alleg, journalist and activist: born London 20 July 1921; married 1946 Gilberte Serfaty (deceased; two sons); died France 17 July 2013.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Multi Skilled Engineer - Electrical / Mechanical / Maintenance

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A multi-skilled engineer with a...

Recruitment Genius: Electronic Service Engineer - Television & HI-FI

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Engineers for field & bench ser...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Designer - Award Winning Agency

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity for a t...

Recruitment Genius: Project Manager

£35000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This global provider of call ce...

Day In a Page

Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada