It is one of the outstanding mysteries of the Algerian War of Independence, fought and lost by the French against Algerian Nationalists between 1954 and 1962, that the conflict produced no literature on the French side. This is all the more astonishing given that the war engulfed a whole generation of French intellectuals in ferocious debate in Paris and Algiers, blowing apart the friendship between Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus along the way. The central arguments were all about the ethics of combat: the French used torture as a weapon of war while the Muslims engaged in terrorism against a civilian population. As the war intensified, the guilt on both sides hardened into irreducible fury and hatred, all expressed through extreme violence. The sudden capitulation by France to the Nationalists in 1962 dealt a massive shock to the collective French psyche, including those Frenchmen who had sympathised with the Algerian cause. The French who were loyal to the ideal of ‘Algérie Française’ felt betrayed by de Gaulle, who had brokered the peace deal. Neither side expected the peace to come in this way and it is arguable that neither country has quite recovered from what felt more like a bereavement than a colonial struggle: Algeria had a special status as an integral part of France rather than a colony and those Frenchmen who lived there felt Algeria to be their homeland in the same way as the Algerian nationalists did.
On Leave is then a rare find: a book written by a Frenchman on the French side during, as it were, the confusion of the war. It was written in 1957 by Daniel Anselme, in the aftermath of the so-called ‘Battle for Algiers’, when the French thought briefly that they