Obituary: Claude Bourdet

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The Independent Online
On 31 March 1956 French security police came to arrest Claude Bourdet.

He was taken first to the prison of La Sante, then to Fresnes. He was finally taken to some barracks where a magistrate prepared to examine him. "It's curious," Bourdet remarked, "but it's exactly the same as last time. First to Sante, then Fresnes. You've followed the same route as the others." "What do you mean, `the others'?" asked the magistrate, frowning. "Why, the Gestapo, of course," replied Bourdet. "You must have heard of them." The magistrate went white with rage. Bourdet thought he was going to hit him.

In 1956 Bourdet was arrested because he had written an article attacking the policies of the French government in Algeria. He was accused of demoralising the army. In March 1944 it was as a leader of the Resistance that he was arrested, deported to Oranienburg, and from there to Buchenwald. The irony of the 1956 incident was that the orders for his arrest came from two former companions of the Resistance, Bourges- Maunoury, the Minister for Defence, and the head of his private office, Louis Mangin, who had been sent from London by de Gaulle to occupied France.

Thus Bourdet was able to contemplate to what extent the forces that had been united against the Germans had become disunited. The 1956 arrest was not important, Bourdet being released within hours of his arrest, which had caused a wave of protests. But, 30 years later, he was still recalling the sadness that it had caused him. What he considered to be the best in France had become divided, hostile to each other, enemies.

Yet all his life he had contemplated such divisions and had, in no small way, himself contributed to them. In the autumn of 1940, Henri Frenay, a distinguished young officer who was humiliated by the defeat, began to organise patriotic groups in the south of France. Claude Bourdet joined with enthusiasm, and in May 1941 Frenay appointed him the leader of the network in the departments of the Alpes- Maritimes and the Var. The south was not occupied by the Germans, so the task of the Resistance was not so much fighting as propaganda. At this Bourdet and his associates were remarkably successful. From December 1941 onwards their main publication became Combat, which grew from some 5,000 copies an issue to some 150,000. Their Resistance network adopted the name of its newspaper.

But there were many problems within the Resistance movements. Frenay believed that Petain, the hero of Verdun, could save France. Bourdet, in long walks along the quais of Marseilles, persuaded him that they had nothing to hope from him. Then there were the Communists. Bourdet was reluctant to co-operate with them, and fearful of their future dominance. Most famous of all were his suspicions of de Gaulle and London, his contempt for those who knew nothing about Resistance work giving orders to those who had gained vast experience and knowledge.

This last led him to be less than enthusiastic about Jean Moulin, who was charged by de Gaulle with unifying the different Resistance groupings. But he never wavered in his conviction that the aim of the Resistance was to create a new France, one which would be modern and progressive.

Bourdet's father was Edouard Bourdet, a highly successful dramatist; his mother, Catherine Pozzi, a poet with a famous salon. With their divorce, Bourdet studied in Zurich as an engineer. Having become bilingual in French and English through his English nanny, he became tri-lingual with German attached. As a left-wing Catholic he supported the Popular Front, and from 1936 he was attached to the economics minister, Charles Spinasse, who disappointed him by being one of the socialists who voted full powers to Petain in July 1940.

On Bourdet's return to France in 1945 he was elected deputy to the first Consultative Assembly and was for a time in charge of national broadcasting. But his future was in political journalism. He succeeded Albert Camus in the peacetime Combat newspaper, but quarrelled with the owner, and left in order to be one of the founders of the weekly France-Observateur, an independent left-wing publication with great influence.

I first met Bourdet when I was a student at the Ecole Normale Superieure in 1948, when he came to denounce the war in Indo-China. He told me that he had great hopes of the Labour government in England, and believed that it would become the leader of a united socialist Europe. In 1957 he came to Birmingham University to speak of French misdeeds in Algeria. His English was perfect but dated. It was curious to hear such a militant speaking the language of Bertie Wooster. His visit was a great success.

He continued his campaigns. Against de Gaulle in 1958; in favour of the Third World; working for a new independent socialist party; in opposition to a Europe dominated by capitalism and Germany. Some said that he was the sort of man who would drive his car in order to give help, but would knock an innocent bystander down as he did so.

Others saw him as the stalwart defender of justice, the tireless believer in a better world, a man of outstanding honesty.

Douglas Johnson

Claude Bourdet, journalist and resister: born Paris 28 October 1909; Founder and Editor, France-Observateur (now Le Nouvel Observateur) 1950- 63; books include L'Aventure incertaine 1975; married 1935 Ida Adamoff (two sons, one daughter); died Paris 20 March 1996.