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France Honors Camus, And Fights Over His Grave Site

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France Honors Camus, And Fights Over His Grave Site


France Honors Camus, And Fights Over His Grave Site

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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We'll take a step away from the battles of Washington now, to the battles of France, where the writer and philosopher Albert Camus died 50 years ago this month. France has been celebrating his life and works throughout January. And like most things in France, the commemoration has been fraught with politics. It all started when President Nikolas Sarkozy suggested moving Camus's remains to Paris. Eleanor Beardsley sends this report.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: A dusting of snow lies atop Albert Camus' tombstone in the tiny cemetery of the Provencal village of Lourmarin. Camus lived briefly here in the south of France before being killed in an automobile accident in January 1960 at the age of 46.

(Soundbite of music)

BEARDSLEY: Fifty years later, France is busy remembering one of its greatest writers. An ever-present cigarette hanging from his lips, Camus' face has graced the cover of numerous magazines, and several made-for-TV movies and documentaries have aired about his life.

Born in 1913 in French colonial Algeria, Camus grew up in poverty. His mother was an illiterate cleaning lady. His father died in the trenches of World War I. One of Camus' teachers discovered his brilliance. In 1942, Camus' second novel, "The Stranger" brought him instant international acclaim.

Soon after, during the Second World War, Camus joined the French Resistance. He risked his life editing its newspaper, "Combat." His biographer, Olivier Todd, says Camus is as well-remembered for his principles as he is for his writing.

Mr. OLIVIER TODD (Writer, Journalist): He had his own stands on Marxism and communism. Long before anyone else, Camus said that the big mistake of left-wing intellectuals in Europe was to stand against Nazism, but to forget to stand against the other totalitarian movement - that is, communism. And it took him a long time to be forgiven for that.

BEARDSLEY: The existentialist writer Jean-Paul Sartre severed relations with Camus after his denunciation of Russian communism. Though he still considered himself from the left, Camus was increasingly at odds with Paris' 1950s Left Bank intellectual scene.

Like the heroes of his novels who confronted society, injustice and death, Camus said he, too, felt like an outsider.

Mr. ALBERT CAMUS (Writer and Philosopher): (Through translator) Within intellectual society, I don't know why, but I always feel like I'm guilty of something. It seems I'm always breaking one of the rules of the clan.

(Soundbite of newsreel)

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: This old newsreel shows him accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957 when he was just 44. Two years after receiving the Nobel Prize, Camus' life ended tragically when the car he was riding in struck a tree.

Last month, President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed that Camus' remains be moved to the Paris Pantheon, the domed Left Bank basilica where the heroes of France are buried. Perhaps Sarkozy thought interring Camus alongside the likes of Victor Hugo and Voltaire was an honor that might please the French. But in this country, nothing comes without a good dose of political controversy.

The proposal has raised a storm of protest. Critics accuse Sarkozy of trying to co-opt Camus' image to give himself some intellectual sparkle. Biographer Olivier Todd says Sarkozy's idea is ridiculous.

Mr. TODD: Camus himself wanted to be buried in Lourmarin, by the football team, which he was. I think Sarkozy, by suggesting that Camus should be removed from this very pleasant provincial cemetery, made a political calculation. He wants to make his mark in the histories of literature. But people are rather embarrassed by the whole Pantheon business. Sarkozy may have felt that he needed Camus, but Camus certainly doesn't need Sarkozy.

(Soundbite of church bells)

BEARDSLEY: In the village of Lourmarin, church bells ring out above the tiny streets and dollhouse facades. Mayor Blaise Diagne says people here are attached to Camus.

Mr. BLAISE DIAGNE (Mayor, Lourmarin, France): (Through translator) After all, he chose to come live here among us after leaving his native Algeria, and people are proud of that. Lourmarin sees itself as an open, tolerant place, and Camus is a part of that image.

BEARDSLEY: Diagne says even if Camus' remains are moved to the Pantheon, his spirit will always be part of Lourmarin. No one, he says, not even Sarkozy, can take that away.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley.

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