Obituaries

Jean Daniel, leading French journalist and humanist, 99

NEW YORK — A half-century before President Barack Obama ordered a restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2014, Jean Daniel, a French journalist on a secret mission to Havana in the autumn of 1963, delivered a proposal by President John F. Kennedy to Fidel Castro.

It was an offer to explore a rapprochement.

Despite the distrust and raw feelings of the Cuban missile crisis, which had nearly plunged the world into nuclear war a year earlier, Mr. Daniel, a confidant of political leaders in many capitals during the Cold War, found Castro surprisingly, if cautiously, receptive to Kennedy’s overture.

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Three days later — it was Nov. 22, 1963 — over lunch at Castro’s seafront retreat on Varadero Beach, they were still discussing the offer when the phone rang with urgent news. Castro, the Cuban leader since 1959, picked up the receiver.

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Mr. Daniel — who died on Wednesday at 99 at his home in Paris, according to L’Obs, the left-leaning weekly newsmagazine he cofounded — recalled the dramatic scene with Castro in an article in The New Republic days after it happened.

“He came back, sat down and repeated three times the words: ‘Es una mala noticia.’ (‘This is bad news.’)” They tuned into a Miami radio station as the reports trickled out of Dallas. Mr. Daniel paraphrased them: “Kennedy wounded in the head; pursuit of the assassin; murder of a policeman; finally the fatal announcement: President Kennedy is dead.”

Both knew instantly that rapprochement had died with the president.

Mr. Daniel moved on to other crises in a career that touched major conflicts of an era: the French-Algerian war, Israeli-Palestinian clashes, Indochina, the Cold War and, more recently, terrorism.

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Mr. Daniel, a self-described Jewish humanist and noncommunist leftist, was one of France’s leading intellectual journalists, a friend and colleague of the philosopher-writers Jean-Paul Sartre, who rejected his 1964 Nobel Prize in literature, and Albert Camus, who accepted his 1957 Nobel Prize in literature. Like Camus, Mr. Daniel was born in Algeria.

Mr. Daniel used journalism as a means of advocacy. He also had influence in high government circles. He was a friend of David Ben-Gurion, the Zionist who became Israel’s founding prime minister in 1948, and for 60 years he supported Israeli interests.

But Mr. Daniel also defended Palestinian and Arab rights.

From 1954 to 1964, he was a correspondent and editor of the leftist weekly newsmagazine L’Express, which opposed French colonialism in Indochina and Algeria.

As a correspondent in Algiers, Mr. Daniel supported Algeria’s war of independence from French colonialism. He was close to Ahmed Ben Bella, the revolutionary who became Algeria’s first president in 1963.

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In 1964, Mr. Daniel quit L’Express and cofounded Le Nouvel Observateur, a reincarnation of the left-wing newsmagazine France Observateur. Le Nouvel Observateur was later sold and renamed L’Obs. Under his direction for 50 years, Le Nouvel Observateur became France’s leading weekly journal of political, economic, and cultural news and commentary. His editorials opposed colonialism and dictatorships, and ranged over politics, literature, theology, and philosophy.

Mr. Daniel, who was also a correspondent for The New Republic in the late 1950s and early ’60s, wrote for The New York Times and other publications for decades. He was the author of many books on nationalism, communism, religion, the press, and other subjects, as well as novels and a well-received 1973 memoir, “Le Temps Qui Reste” (“The Time That Remains”).

His book “The Jewish Prison: A Rebellious Meditation on the State of Judaism” (2005, translated by Charlotte Mandell) suggested that prosperous, assimilated Western Jews had been enclosed by three self-imposed ideological walls — the concept of the Chosen People, Holocaust remembrance, and support for Israel.

Jean Daniel Bensaïd was born in Blida, Algeria, on July 21, 1920. His father, Jules, was a flour miller.

As a young man, Mr. Daniel moved to France, studied philosophy at the Sorbonne and enlisted in the Free French Forces during World War II. He fought at Normandy, in Paris, and in Alsace.

In 1947, he founded the literary review Caliban, adopted the pen name Jean Daniel and was the editor until 1951. His friend Camus wrote an introduction to Mr. Daniel’s first novel, “L’Erreur” (1953).

Mr. Daniel married Michèle Bancilhon in 1966. He leaves her and a daughter, Sara Daniel, a reporter at L’Obs.