Comité National des Écrivains

views updated



The Comité National des Écrivains, or National Writers' Committee, was founded in June 1941 with the goal of bringing into the French Resistance writers from different political and religious tendencies. The 1943 poem "La rose et le réséda" by one of its founding members, Louis Aragon (1897–1982), represents the CNE, and the Resistance, as an ideal community uniting Stalinist and Gaullist writers, Catholics, Jews, Protestants, and atheists. The early members reflect this diversity: Louis Aragon, a former surrealist, was a member of the French Communist Party; Jean Paulhan (1884–1968) was director of publication at Gallimard; Jacques Decour (1910–1942) taught German and was a member of the French Communist Party; the Catholic writer François Mauriac (1885–1970) belonged to the Académie Française; Édith Thomas (1909–1970), a novelist, hosted the CNE meetings in her apartment during the Occupation; and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) joined in 1943, even though the Communists had always been suspicious of his enthusiasm for Martin Heidegger. By the end of 1943 the CNE had some two hundred members, united in their efforts to save the honor of French letters.

Along with creating a united front opposed to the Nazi occupation of France, the CNE also sought to regulate the professional conduct of writers during the war. The CNE favored clandestine publications, strongly discouraged writers from publishing in journals approved by the Nazi occupiers, and frowned on the literary abstention favored, for instance, by the poet René Char. The founding members of the CNE—Aragon, Paulhan, and Decour—created the clandestine journal Les lettres françaises. The first issue was slated for publication in February 1942, but the arrest and execution of Jacques Decour delayed publication until September of that year. From then on, Les lettres françaises appeared every month and published anonymous manifestos, poems, and literary articles by the intellectual Resistance in France, along with occasional texts from representatives of the French literary canon: Victor Hugo, from Les châtiments in particular; Guy de Maupassant, who had lived through and denounced another occupation; Alphonse de Lamartine; and Guillaume Apollinaire. The CNE also cooperated closely with the clandestine publishing house Les Éditions de Minuit. Founded in 1942, Minuit published dozens of literary texts during the war, including Mauriac's Le cahier noir (1943), the volume L'honneur des poètes (1943–1944), edited by Pauĺ luard, and Vercors's immensely popular Le silence de la mer (1943).

The main business of the CNE, however, was denouncing collaborationist writers. The very first issue of Les lettres françaises singles out for retribution the Nouvelle revue française, France's most prestigious prewar literary journal, directed during the occupation by Pierre Drieu la Rochelle. In November 1943 the CNE requested permission from the postwar Liberation authorities to create a council dedicated to examining and judging the conduct of writers during the Occupation. This request for judicial authority was never granted, but the CNE asserted its influence by creating blacklists of tainted writers. The first list was published in September 1944 and contained the names of writers whose punishment included execution for treason (Robert Brasillach), imprisonment (Charles Maurras), and a ban on publishing for several years (Jean Giono, Jacques Chardonne, and Paul Morand).

In September 1944, the CNE published a "Manifesto" in Les lettres françaises calling on French writers to "remain united in victory … and in the righteous punishment of the impostors and traitors." Although the manifesto was signed by some sixty writers, the ideal of a national unity that transcended political, religious, and generational divides was already beginning to disintegrate. Soon after the Liberation of Paris, François Mauriac denounced what he saw as the arbitrariness of the purge tribunals and of the CNE's blacklists. As Mauriac stated in his famous debate with Albert Camus, the CNE and the French nation were too quick to find scapegoats who could expiate the crimes of the community. Mauriac was expelled from the CNE in 1948. Jean Paulhan, who resigned from the CNE in 1946, went even further. For Paulhan, in 1945 the members of the CNE were engaged in nothing more than a seizure of power that perfectly mirrored that of the collaborationist intellectuals in 1940.

By the end of the war, Les lettres françaises was one of the most widely read intellectual journals in Europe, with a circulation of approximately 190,000. Benefiting from the prestige of its members, the CNE embarked on an ambitious campaign to promote French literature in France and abroad. But in the 1950s, the CNE's drift toward Stalinism, the inflammation of old rivalries between writers, and the rise of competing publications such as Les temps modernes and Critique transformed the CNE from a clandestine republic of letters into one more instance of Cold War polarization in France.

See alsoAragon, Louis; France; Resistance; Sartre, Jean-Paul.


Conley, Verena. Littérature, Politique et communisme: Lire "Les Lettres françaises" 1942–1972. New York, 2004.

Judt, Tony. Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals 1944–1956. Berkeley, Calif., 1992.

Kaplan, Alice Yaeger. The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach. Chicago, 2000.

Mauriac, François. Le baillon dénoué, après quatre ans de silence. Paris, 1945.

Novick, Peter. The Resistance versus Vichy: The Purge of Collaborators in Liberated France. New York, 1968.

Paulhan, Jean. De la paille et du grain. Paris, 1948.

——. Lettre aux directeurs de la Résistance. Paris, 1952.

Rousso, Henry. "L'épuration en France. Une histoire inachevée." Vingtième Siècle 33 (January–March 1992): 78–105.

Sapiro, Gisèle. La guerre des écrivains: 1940–1953. Paris, 1999.

Simonin, Anne. Les Éditions de Minuit, 1942–1955: Le devoir d'insoumission. Paris, 1994.

Verdès-Leroux, Jeannine. Au service du Parti: Le parti communiste, les intellectuels et la culture (1944–1956). Paris, 1983.

Watts, Philip. Allegories of the Purge: How Literature Responded to the Postwar Trials of Writers and Intellectuals in France. Stanford, Calif., 1998.

Philip Watts

About this article

Comité National des Écrivains

Updated About content Print Article