Henri Alleg: Journalist who fought for Algerian independence


Thursday 01 August 2013 18:57
Bell in 2004: his playing echoed Jelly Roll Morton
Bell in 2004: his playing echoed Jelly Roll Morton

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.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments