Why Jean Berthet decided to work with the FLN
Source Louis Proyect
Date 05/06/04/03:24

From Martin Evan's "The Memory of Resistance: French Opposition to the
French Algerian War (1954-1962):

Jean Berthet. Worked with the FLN in Aix-en-Provence and then was a Member
of the Curiel Network. Born 1921. Died, Avignon, 6 July 1989

IN THE SUMMER of 1944, Jean Berthet was deported for Resistance activities
to the Buchenwald concentration camp. The intensity of his concentration
camp experience has meant that ever since his memory has been impaired.
Initially he warned that his remembering had a tendency to be disjointed
and non-sequential. Nevertheless, in practice Berthet had no trouble
recalling his motivations, telling his story with great passion and emotion.

Jean Berthet's family was very rich and as a boy he had servants and a
chauffeur. His father was in the import and export trade in French
Indo-China, owning a large department store in Saigon. Berthet presented
his childhood as confined and narrow-minded. He explained that his parents
were very right-wing and deeply prejudiced, teaching Berthet to despise all
those below him, especially the working class. His parents divorced during
the 1920s and his mother brought him and his sister back to Paris. At
school, Berthet was taught to take pride in the achievements of the French
empire. General Bugeaud and Pere Foucauld were held up as heroic examples
to follow because they had brought civilisation to the backward colonies.

Berthet's experience in World War Two Resistance, and above all his
experience in Buchenwald concentration camp, explains, he feels, why he
came to reject colonialism. Buchenwald, he told me again and again, opened
his eyes to human values; it made him rethink his values in a profound way:

"There I had a fantastic experience because at the time of my arrest I was
still at the stage when well-bred people were inevitably the sort of people
I associated with, and the others were people of no interest. . . anyway in
Buchenwald we were all dressed alike, we were all cold, we were all hungry,
we truly were all complete equals. I saw how people react . . . and I
noticed that a lot of people with well-manicured hands, who weren't manual
workers, and who belonged to the so-called upper classes turned out to be
self-centred, cowardly swine whereas others who were just ordinary humble
folk proved to be quite outstanding."

In Buchenwald Berthet saw working-class people, whom he had been told to
despise, divide up their Red Cross food parcels, whilst people from his own
social background did not. For Berthet this was a moment of truth. From
that point onwards he realised that everything his parents had taught him
was lies and falsehoods. During the deportation, Berthet lost his Catholic
faith and became a convert to communism. He told me with great pride how it
was the inmates themselves, led by communists, who liberated the camp in
May 1945.

On returning to Paris, Berthet went to see his mother. He wanted to explain
how Buchenwald had transformed his view of the world. Upon listening to his
story, his mother said that he needed a rest and sent him away for a few
days in the country. After a few days Berthet realised that he had in fact
been sent to a mental asylum. He managed to escape by mingling with the
visitors. After that Berthet broke off all relations with his mother. Now
she was a total stranger. Within Berthet's testimony this was a key
incident, symbolising the complete rejection of his middle-class
background. After 1945 Berthet met his wife Alice and he became a worker at
Renault where he joined the PCF. They then moved to Aix-en-Provence to open
a stationery shop.

It was the Indo-China war which first awakened Berthet's consciousness to
the colonial issue:

"Directly I returned from deportation I was at one with the Vietminh
against colonialism. Directly I got back from the deportation I became
aware, from what I'd experienced in the camps, that the Resistance had been
a national resistance to start with, but I soon said to myself, 'Look, if
you'd been Belgian, you would have taken part in the Resistance in Belgium,
so it wasn't for France, but against oppression that you fought.' It was
first and foremost a fight against oppression, against humiliation. I very
quickly came back to France and there was the war in Indo-China. I
automatically sided with the Vietminh. They had my support."

Rethinking his Resistance experience meant that as soon as the Algerian
insurrection broke out Berthet was with the Algerians. He saw it as normal
that he should support the Algerians. After all, he had resisted the
Occupation of France, and Algeria was a country which had been occupied for
nearly 130 years.

In the first instance, Berthet was involved in legal opposition. In
Aix-en-Provence, he organised a committee of solidarity with Algerian
prisoners. Berthet was recruited to work with the FLN by another PCF
member, Jean Guericolas. His willingness to cross over to illegal acts
stemmed from his discomfort with the PCF position. Berthet was balanced in
his criticism of the PCF, but nevertheless at the time he felt that the
party was too circumspect. An indication of the PCF's refusal to take a
clear lead was the voting of the special powers, which Berthet described as
spineless. When it was a question of choosing between his party card and
doing what his conscience told him to do, he remembered this as a difficult
dilemma which caused him much anguish. Nevertheless he felt he had to
follow the courage of his convictions:

"I had a great friend: we remained close until he died. He worked in the
section office of the Party and he came into the shop one day and said to
me, 'How are your brothers getting on?' He was talking about the prisoners'
families because he didn't know I was sheltering an Algerian leader. So I
said, 'Aren't they your brothers too, then?' And here's what he replied
word for word: 'No, they're not; they are some sort of distant cousins
because it's the French workers who are my brothers.' So I said, 'And what
about proletarian internationalism, then?' He went on to say, 'The
Algerians are taking bread out of the mouths of the French because they
accept such a pittance.' 'Now listen,' I said, 'if that's the party view,
then there is no question of me carrying on as a parry member.' I was
furious, and tore up my membership card in front of him."

Ideas emanating from the Third World were important in altering Berthet's
consciousness. The Bandung conference was significant because it united all
the countries of the Third World. It reinforced his belief that, unlike the
majority of French people, he was following the dynamic of history, which
was directed towards the eventual liberation of the whole of humanity. Very
influenced by the writings of Fanon, the experience of Resistance to the
Algerian war transformed him into a third worldist. After independence he
took out Algerian nationality and went to live in Algeria.

Berthet had no sympathy for the French settlers. They were racists who were
defending their privileges. Berthet stressed that he never saw himself as a

"As I see it, the anti-Nazi Germans did not betray Germany .... They
preserved Germany's honour; there was no betrayal. Once more, when my
country was invaded I fought against the attacker. When it's my country
that does the attacking, then I fight my country. There's no betrayal in
that.... On the contrary, it is for my country's honour ... I don't know
the word 'betrayal' .... Someone like Massu is a traitor to France. He
tortured and massacred people .... Anyone who fights Massu is not a traitor
to France. That's my most heartfelt conviction."

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