In Camus' novel L'étranger / The Stranger, Meursault gets arrested for shooting "an Arab". During his pre-trial detention, his girlfriend Marie pays him a visit in prison and tries to give him some hope:

Elle a crié de nouveau : « Tu sortiras et on se mariera! » J'ai répondu : « Tu crois? » mais c'était surtout pour dire quelque chose. Elle a dit alors très vite et toujours très haut que oui, que je serais acquitté et qu'on prendrait encore des bains.
(Deuxième partie, II)


She shouted again, ‘You will get out and we'll get married!’ I answered, ‘You think so?’ but mainly to say something back. Then she quickly and still very loudly said yes and that I would be acquitted and that we would go swimming again.

Why is Marie so sure that Meursault would be acquitted? Is this conviction inspired by a two-tier justice system that existed in French Algeria? Based on what I read in the French and English Wikipedia articles, there was indeed discrimination, but these articles don't say whether a Frenchman would so easily get away with murdering an Algerian.

In addition to Marie's words, there's also the words by Meursault's lawyer near the start of Part II:

Mon affaire était délicate, mais il ne doutait pas du succès, si je lui faisait confiance.


My case was tricky, but he had no doubts about its success if I trusted him.

Since this is a murder case, it seems hard to believe Meursault would be acquitted without the existence of a two-tier justice system that treated French citizens much less strictly for crimes against committed against Algerians than, for example, the other way round.

Update regarding historical background: Capital punishment executed by guillotine existed in the French justice system until 1981; the last execution by guillotine was executed in 1977. In addition, we even know who the executioner in French Algeria was at the time of the publication of L'étranger, namely Maurice Meyssonnier.

For this question, I am looking for evidence that there was a two-tier justice system in Algeria that would allow a French murderer of an Algerian to escape a death sentence, and that Camus, who grew up in French Algeria, was aware of this.

  • Where do you read that she is 'so sure'? – SNR May 3 '20 at 8:14
  • @SNR "Elle a dit alors très vite et toujours très haut que oui". But Marie's words are not the only reason why I asked about the two-tier justice system. – Tsundoku May 3 '20 at 9:56
  • How many reasons gave both of them to make us think that they are 'so sure'? – SNR May 3 '20 at 11:20
  • @SNR All people involved should know that you don't get so easily acquitted for murder. Hence, claiming that Meursault would get acquitted would be a lie that he would easily see through in a "normal" justice system. (By the way, the question's main focus is on the historical background, not character analysis.) – Tsundoku May 3 '20 at 11:40

Unfortunately I can't read French, so this answer will be based on secondary research.

tl:dr - At this time (and the recent past) there was simply no idea that a single set of laws applied to everyone. French citizens had a set of laws; native Algerians had another. Constitutional law protected a seperation of French and Algerian law. At various times, it actually was legal for a European to kill an indigenous Algerian.

1942: Vichy Law is Nonsense

The Stranger was published in 1942. During this time France was governed by the Vichy State, essentially a Nazi puppet government.

Curran (1998) summarizes key features of the Vichy government and legal system. If we assume that Camus is talking about contemporary law, then both metropolitan France and Algeria are (on paper) subject to the same governance. However, a key feature of Vichy law is that it is entirely paradoxical. France choose to disguise Nazi conquest through a series of legislative maneuvers that themselves were illegal. French law was essentially a smoke and mirrors show.

Marie's comments could be read as a reflection of this state. On one hand, she may be literally correct that in the racist political and juridical system of Vichy France that a European may not face capital punishment for killing one of the native Algerians. On the other hand, perhaps the nonsense apparent in her statement reflects the paradox underlying Vichy Law in the first place.

Curran also notes that the basic machinery of existing French law was still in place under Vichy rule, though in practice the judiciary and administration did whatever the legislature directed them to. We'll talk more about those in the next section. A common strategy employed by Vichy France was to keep existing laws in place, but redefine words like "citizen" so that existing laws no longer applied to minorities.

Before 1942: Algeria is Subject, Not an Equal

Benton (1999) describes comparative colonial law prior to Vichy rule. French colonial law was essentially a tapestry of different kinds of law all operating in the same area. The two main groups are:

  • French metropolitan law applied to French citizen.
  • Indigenat ("native"?) law applies to non-French citizens.

The legal rights and crimes for French citizens and indigenous people is simply different. Without getting into details, Benton also says that the French intentionally kept this system ambiguous. It was intended to help them rule a subject territory, not be just.

Grandmaison(2006) characterizes this as two entirely different worlds. It almost defies our modern understanding of law, but rests on a primordial notion that some people are just inherently better (more civilized, more worthy of legal protection) than others. The legal systems reflect a real sense of values and world-view of French government at the time.

Although the most heinious examples seem to have been removed from law by this time, there are some pretty striking things which support the idea that a French citizen may not have faced any meaningful punishment for murdering an indigenous person.

Article 109 of the French Constitution of 1848 provided for Algeria to follow a different set of laws than the rest of France. In the constitution of 1852, the French legislature is empowered to regulate Algerian law. It's still entirely separate.

Although I haven't found a better source, Wikipedia's article on Indigenat describes the system of "native" law. There were French courts and local courts. Meursault's crime would have been governed by the French judge, but their decision was effectively not constrained by legal advice. Additionally, for a set of 34 infractions a European could institute summary punishment (including execution) without a court proceeding.

Summary execution was apparently removed from law in 1924, but the same article notes that decisions were still handled by local judges and may have continued on a local basis.

Other Themes

Marie's comments may not reflect any historical reality. Camus purposefully takes his characters out of context and provides only minimal facts. They exist without any inherent meaning. Similarly, Marie's statements perhaps reflect a thematic reality rather than a historical one.


Benton, Lauren. 1999. "Colonial Law and Cultural Differences: Jurisdictional Politics and the Formation of the Colonial State." Comparative Studies in Society and History 41:3. PDF.

Curran, Vivian. 1998. "The Legalization of Racism in a Constitutional State: Democracy's Suicide in Vichy France". Hastings Law Journal 50: 1. PDF.

Grandmaison, Olivier Le Cour. 2006. "The Exception and the Rule: On French Colonial Law." Diogenes 212. PDF.

  • Thank you very much for this research, which confirms what I thought. Do you also have information about what Camus thought of this legal system? That would be extremely relevant to this question. – Tsundoku Feb 28 at 14:34
  • @Tsundoku He's complicated. He advocated for peaceful reconciliation between French and Algerians. He was against the systematic racism in France and published articles intended to draw attention and drive French reforms. On the other hand, he wasn't supportive of much of the Algerian resistance. I think as a whole, he wanted people to live genuine, emotionally fulfilling lives together. This requires confronting and reconciling social difficulties. – indigochild Feb 28 at 15:43
  • There's also this dissertation if you want to read a philosopher's take. academicworks.cuny.edu/cgi/… – indigochild Feb 28 at 15:44
  • 1
    Yes, his stance regarding Algerian independence was more complex that most people could bear and owned him a lot of criticism, so that he became reluctant to talk about it at all. And thanks for the link to the dissertation. – Tsundoku Feb 28 at 16:06

The legal status of the Algerian "Arabs", as they are called in L'Étranger, in the 1930s was the result of various laws, decrees and ordonnances that had come into force since the French conquest of Algiers in 1830.

The Ordonnance royale du 24 février 1834 (Royal ordonnace of 24 February 1834) had declared Algeria as annexed to France; as a consequence, the indigenous Muslims and Jews became French subjects, however, without enjoying the rights of French citizenship (Weil: 95). Starting in 1830, the French introduced punishments for Muslims that did not exist in French law, such as the sequestering of property (Weil: 96). By 1874, there was a list of 27 infractions that applied only to native Algerians; this list was further expanded in 1876, 1877 and 1881 and included meetings without permission, leaving the district without a travel permit, refusing to accept French mony and disrespectful acts (Weil: 96; "Le code de l'indigénat ...", 2006; Merle, 2005). There were also collective punishments in the case of setting fire to a forest (Weil: 96). In mixed districts ("communes mixtes"), punishments were applied by the colonial administrator, i.e. by the executive instead of the judiciary branch of government, which constituted a direct violation of French law (Merle, 2005). (In the other communities, the juge de paix or justice of the peace spoke the verdicts. See Weil: 96). The executive branch enjoyed a lot of freedom for its verdicts; in addition, a simple accusation could suffice for a fine or a conviction (Merle, 2005). The following anecdotes illustrates the arbitrariness of punishments: when in 1909, a legislator wanted to propose a law abolishing administrative internment, he was told that it was not possible to propose a law that would repeal a text that did not exist (Thénault, 2012).

The law of 28 June 1881 consolidated a number of legal practices that already existed, such as power of administrators to condemn native Algerians in mixed districts. This is what became known as the Code de l'indigénat (roughly "civil code for the indigenous); it came down to a sort of slavery for indigenous populations ("Le code de l'indigénat ...", 2006). Strictly speaking, the 1881 law was only temporary, i.e. valid for seven years, but the duration of its validity was extended again and again, until well into the 20th century. (It was also gradually adopted in other French colonies. See Funes, 2019).

By 1914, these administrators had pronounced around 20,000 convictions; between 1890 and 1914, around 600,000 days of forced labour had been inflicted by administrators on native Algerians (Thénault 2012). Since more than 100,000 native Algerians served in the French army during the First World War, the French state owed them some sort of compensation. In 1919, 400,000 native Algerians, all men, were exonerated from the application of most of the indigénat penal code and the administrators lost the power to pronounce verdicts by 1927. However, the indigénat legal code did not disappear until the French Committee of National Liberation's ordonnance of 7 March 1944 (Thénault).

Since citizenship determined whether one was subjected to the Code de l'indigénat or not, the access to full French citizenship is relevant to penal code. The sénatus-consulte of 14 July 1865 determined the conditions under which indigenous Muslims (Article 1), Algerian Jews (Article 2) and foreigners (article 3) can become French citizens through a process called "naturalisation" (as if Algerian Muslims and Jews weren't actually French subjects but foreigners). At the time, there were 3 million Muslims, 30,000 Jews and 250,000 foreigners in Algeria. However, on 24 October 1870 (some time after Emperor Napoleon III had been captured in the Franco-Prussian War) the Government of National Defense grants the French nationality to the Algerian Jews (Weil: 97–98; see also the Crémieux Decree). The sénatus-consulte of 1865 remained applicable to Muslims who wanted to acquire French citizenship. Few benefited from it. One reason is that the requirements included respecting the French Code civil and thereby abandoning five Muslim practices that were incompatible with it (for example, polygamy; see Weil: 100). Even a conversion to Catholicism did necessarily help; in fact, the appellate court of Algiers ruled in 1903 that the term "musulman" ("Muslim") was not a purely religious term but essentially an ethnic one, so the indigénat rules still applied to Muslims who had converted to Catholicism (Weil: 101). In addition, the colonial administrators were opposed to the naturalisation of Muslims, as Jules Ferry noted in 1892 and Albin Rozet in 1913 (Weil: 103). Between 1865 and 1915, only 2,396 Algerian Muslims were naturalised (Weil: 104). The law of 4 February 1919 created a new naturalisation procedure; as a result, 1,204 Algerians Muslims were naturalised between 1919 and 1930, which wasn't much of an improvement (Weil: 106).

Was Albert Camus aware of the social and legal inequality of the "Arabs" in Algeria? Evidence from the years before the publication of L'Étranger (1942) shows that he was.

In 1936, the proposed law Blum-Viollette would have granted suffrage to 20.000 Arabs but it met with strong resistance among the Pieds-Noirs and came to nothing. According to Spiquel (2009), Camus had taken the initiative for a "Manifesto by Algerian intellectuals in favour of the proposed law Viollette". (Vircondelet does not mention this manifesto; see pages 206 and 300.)

Between 5 and 15 June 1939, Camus published a series of articles in Alger républicain about the poverty and misery in Kabylia (Vircondelet: 239; Spiquel 2009). Earlier that year, he had also published various articles about the repression against Algerian nationalists and the demands of the Algerian People's Party (Spiquel 2009). Several years later, in May 1945, Camus published another series of six articles about Kabylia and other areas of Algeria, this time for the resistance publication Combat. This was another series in which he expossed the abuses of colonialism (paradoxically perhaps, without demanding the end of French colonialism) (Vircondelet: 295; Spiquel 2009). In 1958, Camus collected political publications about Algeria in the volume * Actuelles. Écrits politiques, tome III : Chroniques algériennes 1939-1958*, published by Gallimard.

El Aziz Kessous, one of Camus's friends, reported an anecdote from 1934 or 1935, according to which a policeman dragged an Algerian to the police station with one end of a rope around the man's legs and the other end tied to the saddle on the policeman's horse. Camus later used this as a source of inspiration for his novella L'Hôte (inluded in L'Exil et le royaume in 1957). (Théâtre, récits, nouvelles, 1967: 2048–2049; Vircondelet: 402–403; in Vircondelet's version, the man was a trade unionist; the anecdote does not say what the Algerian was accused or suspected of.)

Finally, Agnès Spiquel (2012) notes that in L'Étranger Meursault kills an "Arab", whereas in La Mort heureuse, written a few years earlier, Mersault kills a European. She adds,

s’il s’était agi simplement de faire courir au meurtrier le risque de la peine de mort, il aurait été plus plausible que la victime fût un Européen.


if it was simply about making the murderer risk capital punishment, it would have been more plausible if the victim [in L'Étranger] had been a European.

This also suggests that it is easier for a French citizen to get away with murdering an Algerian Muslim than with murdering another Frenchman.

Note: The French-language sources I consulted (see below) don't mention the Vichy regime as making a difference with regard to the Code de l'indigénat. The novel L'Étranger itself does not mention that a war is going on, even though there would have been a perfect opportunity to mention it in the passsage in which Meursault tells us his boss offered him a position in Paris. Either Camus considered the war irrelevant to the novel or he imagened it was set in a period before the war.


The website Histoire coloniale et postcoloniale, which hosts several of the above sources, was created and maintained by a group of French historians.

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