Jean Daniel, preeminent French journalist and intellectual, dies at 99

His death was announced by L’Obs, the weekly newsmagazine that he helped found in 1964 as Le Nouvel Observateur, and where he served as editorial director until 2008. Other details of his death were not immediately available.

Once described by the New York Times as a “father confessor to French socialism,” Mr. Daniel was one of his country’s most prominent journalists for more than half a century — from the Algerian war for independence in the 1950s and early 1960s to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that strained relations between the French and American governments.

On those events, and on nearly every major intervening world affair, Mr. Daniel could be counted on for trenchant commentary, if not also for his participation at the side of their protagonists.

Mr. Daniel “has played a role in French political society that has no equivalent in American letters, with the possible exception of Walter Lippmann,” journalist Adam Shatz wrote in the New York Review of Books in 2005.

“He has not only reported on some of the major conflicts of his time — the French-Algerian war, the Congo, the Cold War, the question of Israel-Palestine,” Shatz continued, but “he has earned the trust and respect of statesmen . . . without sacrificing his independence as a commentator.”

Mr. Daniel began his journalistic career in 1954 with the weekly magazine L’Express, which dispatched him to Algeria to cover the armed conflict in which the French colony ultimately achieved its independence. He took a bullet to the thigh while reporting on the battle over the French military base of Bizerte, in neighboring Tunisia, in 1961.

Mr. Daniel, who was born in Algeria, supported the cause of independence, but not in unqualified fashion. “As an Algerian-born Jew,” Shatz wrote, “he also understood that the aim of Algeria’s rebels was not to establish a revolutionary socialist republic but to resurrect the country’s long-repressed Arab and Muslim identity.”

But in the seemingly in­trac­table Arab-Israeli conflict, Mr. Daniel supported the Jewish state while also defending Palestinian rights.

“He occupies a position that is both deeply honest and increasingly difficult, in no small part because each side demands unconditional loyalty,” David Kaufmann, a George Mason University literature professor, wrote in the publication Forward in a review of Mr. Daniel’s book “The Jewish Prison: A Rebellious Meditation on the State of Judaism.”

“He bridles at any claim that his identification as a Jew should trump his other commitments,” Kaufmann wrote. “He is, he maintains, as much a Frenchman as a Jew and, above all else, a human. Indeed, at certain points in this book he seems to reject the very notion of identity itself as an illegitimate limitation of his liberty.”

Mr. Daniel played perhaps his most noted role in American affairs in the fall of 1963, when Benjamin C. Bradlee, then a journalist with Newsweek magazine and later executive editor of The Washington Post, introduced him to his friend President Kennedy.

A year earlier, in one of the dramatic episodes of the Cold War, the United States had discovered a Soviet build up of missiles in Cuba, less than 100 miles from the United States. The ensuing confrontation, known as the Cuban missile crisis, brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.

Informed by Bradlee that Mr. Daniel was on his way to Cuba for a reporting trip, Kennedy agreed to meet with Mr. Daniel on Oct. 24, 1963. They convened in the Oval Office — the president seated in his rocking chair and Mr. Daniel on a couch — where Kennedy gave Mr. Daniel a message for Castro.

That message, Mr. Daniel later wrote in The Post, was that “anything is possible with a Cuban nationalist state, even a Communist one” — he recalled that Kennedy cited the positive U.S. relations with Communist Yugoslavia — but that “nothing is possible with a Cuba indentured to the Soviet Union and charged by that country with expanding armed subversion in Central and Latin America.”

Mr. Daniel continued on to Cuba, ultimately meeting with Castro for a wide-ranging colloquy that lasted from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m.

“Fidel listened to me; I mean, he listened to Mr. Kennedy through my voice, with a devouring and passionate interest: twisting his beard, pulling at his parachutist beret, adjusting his maquis jacket, throwing a thousand sparkling malicious lights from the depths of his lively black eyes,” Mr. Daniel wrote in The Post after he returned.

“For a moment, I felt as though I were playing the role of this partner with whom he had as great a desire to discuss as to fight, that I was, in a way, this intimate enemy, this Kennedy of whom [Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev] had said to Fidel, ‘With him one can talk.’ ”

The two men continued their conversation later and were eating lunch at Castro’s residence on Varadero Beach on Nov. 22, 1963, when Castro received a phone call. Mr. Daniel, who could hear only one end of the conversation, understood to be of the gravest importance.

Cómo? Un atentado?” Castro asked. (“What’s that? An assassination attempt?”)

Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. In an account published in the New Republic magazine, Mr. Daniel recalled that after Castro hung up, he took his seat again and said three times: “Es una mala noticia.” (“This is bad news.”)

“Everything is changed,” he said. “Everything is going to change.”

Jean Daniel Bensaïd was born on July 21, 1920, in Blida, Algeria, to what Kaufmann described as a “middle-class and very cosmopolitan family.” He served with the Free French Forces during World War II before studying philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris.

With Camus, Mr. Daniel founded a cultural magazine, called Caliban, before joining L’Express. He was married to Michèle Bancilhon and had a daughter, Sara Daniel, a writer for L’Obs, but a complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

Mr. Daniel wrote regularly for English-language publications including the Times. He was the author of novels as well as nonfiction books, essays, diaries and a memoir, “Le Temps Qui Reste,” translated as “The Time That Remains.”

Although a self-described “committed leftist,” Mr. Daniel was widely known for his eloquent opposition to communism. But even there, his convictions were characterized by incisive nuance, the product of a life defined by the most consequential political struggles of the 20th century.

He recalled with tenderness his friendship with his housekeeper’s son, a young Communist who died fighting Francisco Franco’s fascists during the Spanish Civil War. And so, Mr. Daniel remarked, “I could never bring myself to completely hate Communists.”

James McAuley in Paris contributed to this report.

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