Obituary: Jean-Marie Domenach

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The Independent Online
Jean-Marie Domenach never forgot 27 July 1944. His best friend Gilbert Dru had been shot by the Gestapo in Lyons. That day his body was displayed in the Place Bellecour in the centre of the city. Alongside were the bodies of other Resistance fighters, a fellow Social Catholic, an officer in the Secret Army, a Communist, an unknown man.

For Domenach this was the symbol of a resistance movement that was united. All his life as a journalist, writer and public figure he fought for unity amongst men of reason. He believed that those who were fully engaged in the life of society and in the activities of the state could come together and defend the rights of men. This idealism was largely inspired by Emmanuel Mounier and by his monthly review, Esprit, which he founded in 1932 and which continues to appear more than 47 years after his death.

Domenach was educated in a Jesuit college in Lyons and later took the entrance examination to the Ecole Normale Superieure in the Lycee du Parc. It was there that he made the acquaintance of Esprit and began to follow the meetings that were organised in its name amongst students.

He was opposed to Nazism but was also opposed to the sort of parliamentary democracy that the Third Republic had typified. This fitted in to his going to the special Vichy training college at Uriage that had been formed to create a governing elite which would put into practice the ideas of Petain's National Revolution. But Uriage became increasingly anti-German and opposed to collaboration with the Germans and Laval abolished it in December 1942.

Domenach had already entered into what he himself termed a semi-resistance as one of the editors of Les Cahiers de Notre Jeunesse (a title which deliberately bore the echo of Charles Peguy, the hero of democratic and Social Catholics). The sort of controversy took place that was to follow Domenach all his life. Should Catholics who had the intention of associating with the working class go to work in Germany with them as the Vichy law decreed? Or should patriotism prevail over solidarity with the working class? Domenach chose the latter and having expressed these views the Cahiers were suppressed.

In July 1943 he joined the resistance movement in the Vercors. Not for the last time he had found himself at odds with the Catholic hierarchy and obliged to find some support from an individual priest who had a local following - what he called a "grosse soutane".

After the war he began to work for Esprit, becoming editor in 1949, and its editor-in-chief from 1956 to 1977. He gave it a vigour and a decisiveness which made it outstanding amongst revues; although its circulation remains small (the figure of 20,000 is sometimes given), its association with the publishing house Les Editions du Seuil (for which Domenach also worked) has given it a certain financial stability.

It is usually described as being "Catholic" although one of its first principles has always been that it is in no way "confessional". Domenach in particular was anxious that it should not be associated with the Popular Republican Party (the MRP) created in November 1944, which claimed to be a Social Catholic party. He accepted this grouping as being one which was of Christian inspiration, yet was an entirely lay organisation. But he often scornfully quoted the leader of the party, Georges Bidault, saying, "The women will all vote for us and we will have more than a hundred deputies. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost." He did not want Esprit to belong to such a man.

Nor did he share the MRP's anti-Communism or anti- Sovietism. In 1948 and 1949 he was in favour of recognising Tito as the legitimate, Communist leader of Yugoslavia in spite of his condemnation by Moscow. But in a meeting of former resistance fighters he was denounced as someone who had strayed into the American camp and he accepted this, a fact of which he was afterward ashamed. Subsequently he was only too ready to welcome any opponent of Soviet power. In August 1968 he returned from Prague enthusiastic about Dubcek and "the Prague Spring". He called on de Gaulle (who admired him) and received a douche of cold water on the realities of Dubcek's position.

It was difficult to please Domenach. Thus he was greatly in favour of Mendes France's coming to power, although the radical leader was in traditional opposition to Catholic parties. He supported the ending of the war in Indo-China. But, when Mendes France failed to get the European Defence Community through the Assembly, he began to oppose him. He was completely against the subsequent agreements made by Mendes France that involved the rearmament of Germany.

On Algeria, it was an article by Domenach in 1954 which alerted France to the imminence of a full-scale war. He bitterly denounced torture as a weapon used by the French army. He supported the idea of a negotiated peace as he supported other examples of Gaullist decolonisation. But he was always critical of any French approaches to China that would seem to approve the nature of the Chinese Revolution.

Readers, both in France and abroad, turned (as they still do) to Esprit to find articles that were honest, analytical and objective. Thus in 1968, whilst not being blind to the shortcomings of the student movement, he defined it as a critique of a society in the name of the desire to be free. Throughout the years of prosperity, it was Domenach who described how the changing means of production were affecting French society. He was always conscious of divisions, always looking for unity.

He remained a Professor of Social Science in the Ecole Polytechnique until 1987. He saw the victory of Mitterrand in 1981 as having been bought about by Catholic votes. He was a vigorous supporter of the Social Catholic Jacques Delors as Mitterrand's successor.

It was typical of Jean-Marie Domenach, that when he was in England in the later 1960s, I found that he did not want to talk about Gaullism, but that he wanted to question me about my experiences when teaching for the Workers' Educational Association.

Douglas Johnson

Jean-Marie Domenach, journalist and writer: born Lyons 13 February 1922; married Nicola Flory (three sons, one daughter); died Paris 5 July 1997.