There can be nowhere else where political theory has more impact upon everyday life than it does in France. One would not be surprised to find that any random man or woman you encounter, in any village or town anywhere in the country, identifies himself or herself as a supporter of anarchism, or some Trotskyist party, the communist party, social democracy, Christian democracy, Gaullism, royalism, fascism or some variety of separatism, to cover only a subset of the major political currents. The political fringes are unusually well represented. In the last presidential election, the combined vote for far right and far left candidates was over 30%, or more than 11 million voters. Intellectual political debate features relatively prominently in the media, which covers a reasonably wide range of views. The far left operates on a scale that is probably an order of magnitude greater than anywhere in the English speaking world: ten times more members, resources and support. The policeman dismissed me with a contemptuous wave while saying “that is the logic of the left, I am of the right”
The flip side to a politicised population and a large far-left is a politicised state. Prior to the Second World War, there was considerable support among the military hierarchy for the Nazis and large chunks of the security state were quite happy to collaborate with the occupation, to purge the nation of democracy and modern deviations from tradition. The post-war de-nazification of France was extremely superficial and the modern security services retain much of the legacy of Vichy France. They are very clear that their mission is to suppress the masses and nobody bothers pretending that they are concerned with namby-pamby stuff like democracy. Due to purges of Communist sympathisers from 1947 onwards, and the repressive nature of their role, the CRS riot police tend to be the most authoritarian and right-wing – opinion polls among the CRS show strong support for the Front National. Individual officers are surprisingly forthcoming with their political stance: a policeman who pulled me over on a motorway in the South of France dismissed my defence with a contemptuous wave of his hand while saying “that is the logic of the left, I am of the right”.
In February 1997, some of the side-effects of France’s diverse, politically-active society came home to me with a bang. The anarchist bookshop and café, La Plume Noire, in which my friends Davide and Anicée worked, was just around the corner from where I lived. At 4am on the morning of Sunday February 17th, a group of people pulled up in a van outside the shop, smashed the windows, emptied several jerry-cans of oil onto the books and burned the premises down. Firemen intervened to prevent the fire from spreading to the apartment building above, but the bookshop and all its stock was reduced to ashes.
For me this was inconvenient. My French had finally improved to a level where I could read comfortably, and I was starting to work my way through their literature. Moreover, their café hosted the neighbourhood’s most enjoyable and cheapest bar nights. the anarchists’ bookshop had been covered with stickers that announced “FN youth, The Rebel Wave, The Le Pen Wave”.
For the Lyonnaise anarchists it was more alarming than inconvenient. The Front National was on the rise. They had won almost 20% of the vote in the 1994 presidential election and they held the mayor’s office in two sizeable towns, Toulon and Orange, where they were focusing on such tasks as removing books that promoted multi-culturalism from municipal libraries. Just 8 days before the arson attack, they had won a third municipality, Vitrolles, with an overall majority for the first time. On the morning of the attack the front of the anarchists’ bookshop had been covered with stickers that announced “FN youth, The Rebel Wave, The Le Pen Wave”. This had been unusual as the Croix Rousse was a militantly left wing area and there was no history of encroachment by the far-right. Furthermore, the day after the attack, a court-case was due to begin, in which the FN’s leader, Jean Marie Le Pen, was suing the Federation Anarchist’s Newspaper, Le Monde Libertaire (the libertarian world) for defamation.
The Front National had long since ceased to be a stereotypical far-right street-fighting mob. In the early 1980s, they had moved into the committee rooms and had found a reasonably large sector of the population – chauvinistic, economically hard-pressed, traditionalist and nostalgic of France’s glory days – receptive to their message. In making the transition, they had lost their ability to organise publicly. Anti-fascist mobilisations effectively prevented them from holding meetings in the big cities. During my time in Lyon, there was only one occasion when the FN tried to hold a publicly advertised meeting in the vicinity – in Valence, 50km to the South. The meeting did not take place as anarchists and other anti-fascists blockaded the building in advance and physically prevented anybody from entering. My anarchist friends took pride in the fact that it had been many years since the FN had successfully hosted a meeting in the environs of their city.
However, it was feared that the arson attack, and the bold way in which the attackers had apparently identified themselves, might signal a turn towards violence and coercion by the far right. Anarchists generally consider far-right moves away from street-politics and into the electoral domain to be temporary in nature. If and when they gain enough organisational strength, they will return to the streets, to physically assert their power. For one thing, an inability to hold physical meetings is a significant impediment to political organising. For another, the exertion of physical dominance is a fairly basic component of far-right politics: the political creed of the bully. The anarchists felt that the bookshop burning might signify that the local fascists, emboldened by their electoral triumphs, were re-entering street politics. They wanted to respond as strongly as possible as a deterrent. An organised fascist group, active on the streets is a great inconvenience to the far left – a great deal of energy has to be diverted to security, making organising more difficult, and an ever-present risk of physical attack by fascist street gangs does not have a positive impact upon an individual’s quality of life.
I don’t think the arsonists were ever identified, and it’s questionable whether there was even an investigation. Anarchists consider the primary function of the police to be the maintenance of an unjust social order and spend a significant amount of time and energy criticising their suppressive activities. The police are the enemy and thus not generally expected to be of much assistance in such situations, especially when the far-right is involved. The low expectations of the anarchists were matched by reality on this occasion. A couple of policemen showed up and asked a few questions before sauntering off. They seemed more interested in going through the ashtrays to see if there were any joints, than acquiring any evidence. In any case, despite the lack of investigation, there was little doubt as to who the perpetrators were.
The anarchists held a meeting on the evening after the fire, in the ash-filled bookshop’s backroom which had been less badly damaged by the fire than the rest of the building. Some 30 people crammed into this emergency organising meeting. I attended and offered to help out however I could. It was my first real experience of being involved in practical political organising. It was considered paramount to re-open the bookshop as quickly as possible, as a symbol of defiance. While the building was covered by insurance, this would take some time to organise. In the meantime an international appeal for solidarity was launched, to raise enough money to pay for the required building work. As I was the only native English speaker present, and was the only person who had access to the Internet and knew how to use it, I was given the task of spreading news of the attack and announcing the appeal for solidarity donations to sympathetic organisations in the English speaking world.
I duly went off and looked up contact details for as many leftist and anarchist groups as I could find on the Internet and distributed the appeal to them by email. That email, and the follow up mail that I sent afterwards, can still be found among the Internet’s archives today, the first imprint of my political activity on the Internet. Among the groups that I contacted for support was the Garden of Delight in Dublin – they had no hesitation in replying with a donation of several hundred dollars and almost all of the groups that I contacted responded positively. One of the side-effects of me sending this email was that it put me in touch, for the first time, with the small community of English speaking anarchists who were active on the Internet. Much of my subsequent political activity came out of those contacts.
Beyond the appeal, the anarchists decided to respond with a solidarity march in Lyon, un manifestation – to take place the following Saturday. The march would pass through the area, just South of the central Bellecour square, that was traditionally associated with the fascists. It was intended to serve as a show of force and demonstrate that the anarchists had not been intimidated by the arson attack. It seemed to me to be a response that was unlikely to prove effective – the sort of people who burn shops down in the middle of the night are probably not going to be too worried about a demonstration. But, I deferred to their greater experience and local knowledge and happily went along with the proposal.
The week leading up to the demonstration was busy and tense. The bookshop was once again covered with Front National stickers in the middle of the night. Bernard, a well-spoken man in his 50’s, who appeared in the media to represent the anarchists, became the target of incessant harassing phone-calls, threatening his children. It was assumed that a sympathiser among the police had furnished his phone number to the fascists. There were also several attempts by fascists to provoke confrontations with those who were putting up posters and distributing leaflets to advertise the march. On one occasion, I was out putting up posters with 3 or 4 of the anarchists when we were accosted by an angry young man who threatened us and threw a punch at Davide who responded by knocking him over and chasing him down the road. Such incidents created an atmosphere of tension and paranoia which was only released by the march itself.
Some 3000 people showed up to the advertised starting point at place Bellecour, on Saturday afternoon. French demonstrations tend to be highly organised and coordinated events in comparison to the English speaking world. The marching order is agreed in advance and each participating group organises their own ‘cortege’ – a section of the march with their own banners, placards and posters. Larger corteges will often have their own sound-system pumping out music, with a microphone wielding “chef de cortege” leading singing and chanting. Each cortege is also normally responsible for its own security, protecting it from attack and from infiltration by groups that might be perceived as disruptive.
On this occasion, a special banner had been manufactured for the demonstration. It carried the slogan: “Chateauvaillon, Orange, Vitrolles – an Anarchist Bookshop burned, Solidarity with the Plume Noire”, presenting the arson as just the latest in a sequence of threats by the FN. The banner was carried by 3 of Lyon’s regional mayors – representing the Communist Party, the Revolutionary Communist League and the Ecologists. Behind the front banner came me and my van – proudly loaded up with a diesel electricity generator and a huge sound system, with a cluster of speakers tied to the roof with ropes. My van was the mobile sound system for the the anarchist cortege, which took up more than half of the demonstration and was split between the Federation Anarchiste, the anarcho-syndicalist CNT and several smaller groups. The second half of the march was made up by a selection of far-left and anti-racist groups, most of whom had relatively small corteges.
My experience of this particular march can be best expressed by two words and a hyphen: nerve-wracking. There were police everywhere, including a contingent of their intelligence arm – Les Renseignments Generales, who pointedly filmed me and my van at length. We passed multiple huddles of onlookers who looked suspiciously like what one imagined a fascist street gang might look like. The heavy presence of police, plus the provocative route of the march, ensured that a sense of tension and hostility enveloped much of the day. The march stopped outside a variety of buildings associated with either the FN or the police to collectively chant: “F comme Fascist, N comme Nazi, a bas, a bas, le Front National” (F as in Fascist, N as in Nazi, down with, down with, the Front National). Around my van, there was a great confusion of coming and going – people throwing bags in, tinkering with the equipment, adjusting the generator – which kept my nerves on edge. I did not know most of these people and in my imagination, every one of them was a disguised fascist, with a bag containing an incendiary device which would blow up the generator and take me and the van with it.
Happily, the bombs remained imaginary and the march passed peacefully through its tense route. It stopped outside the Museum of the Resistance where speakers reminded the crowd of the shameful history of France viz a viz fascism, decried the fact that the collaborators were integrated into the modern security state, and compared the modern policies on immigration and forcible deportation to those of the wartime Vichy regime. After the speeches, the march continued to the Bourse du Travail where a concert and dinner had been organised to raise funds for the bookshop. This was the most impressive part of the day. The building was a glorious example of art-deco architecture. Its auditorium had a capacity of 1950 people and it was almost full. The performers were a selection of folk-singers, either anarchists or leftists sympathetic to anarchism, people like Paco Ibanez and Serge Utge Royo. Most of them are well known, with reasonably large profiles across the Mediterranean countries, and regularly perform to large audiences. Their repertoire included a large numbers of songs from the anarchists of the Spanish civil war period, such as a las barricadas.
What impressed me most about the mobilisation was the scale of the resources that the Lyonnaise anarchists were able to draw upon within a week of the attack – from political support by local mayors and councils to a well organised march and a folk concert in a glorious auditorium with famous signers performing for free. It was another step up in scale compared to anything I had seen to date. The donations flew in – within a few weeks the entire cost of the renovation had been covered and the shop was able to reopen on a skeleton basis. The mobilisation illustrated the cultural depth of the French far left and the relative wealth of resources available to it as a result. Bourses du Travail, for example, are institutions that are sort of like local trade union councils. They were established by the syndicalist movement in the early years of the 20th century, as a shared resource for the workers movement in each particular locality and a local inter-union coordinating mechanism. They left an impressive infrastructural legacy behind them which can still be drawn upon by left-wing groups.
In the immediate aftermath of the demonstration, however, my concerns were much closer to home. My van died as I got home, presumably from the strain of driving for 3 or 4 hours at less than 5km per hour. I had repeatedly assured the sceptical anarchists of its reliability before being allocated the task of leading their cortege, so I was extremely relieved that it hadn’t broken down earlier, while I was leading the march. It soon came home to me that the van presented another problem – it was very distinctive, a 1972 VW bus with English number plates and right-hand drive. It was now very strongly associated with the anti-fascist march as photos of it were in the newspapers. It was parked outside my door, which was just around the corner from the bookshop that had been burned down by fascists. This combination of facts made me nervous. For the rest of my stay in Lyon, I was always looking over my shoulder – avoiding dark streets, hyper-aware when somebody was behind me, checking under the van for alien devices. Living in a state of vigilance, like this, is stressful and tiring, but when there is an active threat of fascist violence, it is hard to avoid.