(en) ++ French Speakers 54th Congress

Freedom Press (freedom@tao.ca)
Thu, 29 May 1997 22:29:43 GMT

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Taxi drivers are an unpredictable bunch. They love to talk but you've always got to get as far as the first hurdle before you can discover if they are going to come out with something vaguely anti-authoritarian or if they are going to give you a quick potted lecture on which ethnic group should be sent back where. By the time the hurdle arrives retreat is too late. But I tend to dive in blindly and so when I had to get a taxi to the port on the way to France for the 54th Congress of the Federation of French speaking Anarchists I went for the 100m sprint: 'What do you think of Tony Blair then?'. I asked. He was taken aback at first but didn't let me down: 'Not a lot. But mind you I don't think much of the rest of them.' I told him how I had decided to buy my first ever lottery ticket on May 1st rather than vote because by voting you were certain to lose and by buying a lottery ticket you had a better chance of winning. He laughed, 'I've won about 65 times,' he said. Yes, hard to believe, but he confirmed I had heard correctly and told me of how he hoped to one day scoop a biggie and head off for New Zealand and, quite honestly, I don't think he is so untypical: a mistrust of politicians, wanting an escape route etc. Anarchists have always dreamed of *organising* these ordinary kind of folk. Yet there is a problem with organisations. At best they court the dangers of petrification and at worst run the risk of drifting towards avant-guardism. I've written about the first in relation to Spain and the CNT (http://www.tao.ca/~freedom/Raven/spain.html) and the need to recognise new prisons for what they are and to adapt the logistics of escape accordingly. But I've also looked for those structures which confront these problems and a few years ago I held up (on these pages) the example of the French Anarchist Federation as food for thought for a made in Britain model. As I recall there was some enthusiasm for the idea with people I spoke to at the London bookfair in 1994 but although more than a couple of folk reading these paragraphs put time and effort into the idea it was, perhaps unfortunately, 'match abandoned' soon after.


So we were pleased when the FAF invited Freedom Press to their congress in Rennes this year. Ours was simply observer status and a chance to see at first hand what is happening in France and to learn from their organisational practices. I was told, before I got to Rennes, by a comrade who was be unable to attend the congress that I should look forward to *du sport* - a euphemism for lively argument. Indeed, as to be expected, the debate was passionate at times, but really the feeling was one of a happy family - much in contrast to the position of their cross-channel cousins. In France the biggest clash is between those of a communist and those of a syndicalist persuasion whereas here perhaps this is our nearest meeting point. Why should this be? Leaving aside the UK question the FAF has its *points de base* and they are, it is hoped, wide enough to welcome most of their fellow anarchists. They include a commitment to revolutionary class struggle which limits things to those who identify with a more modernist approach but there is a stated commitment to be open to communists, syndicalists and individualists. To what extent members accept the basic principles in their entirety cannot of course be ascertained but the intention is there. The basic unit - although not referred to as such - is the affinity group and I would myself point to this as more likely to indicate the reason for the relaxed atmosphere the members enjoy. The groups take a name to suggest affiliation (Makhno, Kropotkin) or give us the geography (Cherbourg, Paris 18ieme) and in this way members can survive as individuals within a self-supporting structure whilst at the same time feel affiliated to the larger national structure without feeling a sense of loss of identity. It goes further than this though. As good ex students of the *bac* they've been force-fed a school diet of philosophy whose basis is founded on the dialectic form of argumentation. This is seemingly so imbedded in their sub-conscious that they feel their search for the synthesis is an expression of free will. It isn't but it doesn't matter because the intentions are honourable. The FAF doesn't vote. No delegate to the congress applauds or boos an argument. Closer they seem to the Amerindians with their pipes of peace and mutual respect. A thesis makes its appearance. It's antithesis is generated and then some poor sod is sent to the keyboard to synthesise while the rest adjourn for that sacred institution: *le de'jeuner*.


However, there seems to be little in the way of dispute. I was unable to attend all the debates but a few caught my interest not least that on 'abstentionism' because apart from political time zones we are in the same boat as our cousins on this one. There is a dimension to the abstentionist issue in France that doesn't raise its head so clearly here. This is the presence of the National Front in the political arena and the notion that abstaining lets them in the back door. Le'on Blum's popular front of the 1930s or our own Anti-Nazi League of the 1970s come to mind. But the FAF is clear. As anarchists we need to restate our position and try to set the agenda more ourselves - not just to abstain on one particular day but to abstain every day. If this was a domestic issue which needed airing then attention was also given to the international dimension too. In a debate on the development of the state and capitalism the congress revealed its sensitivity to the importance of those institutions like the IMF and the WTO whose decisions more and more, directly or indirectly, shape the environment in which we all must live. This was not the international debate proper which unfortunately I was unable to attend but it did show that the FAF like other organisations around the world is evolving. A small (perhaps) but symptomatic point. No longer is it the French Anarchist Federation but rather it is the French-speaking Anarchist Federation - the French having federated with the Belgians. Although they can't be accused of a past insularity certainly there is an outward attitude afloat. I was able to speak to representatives about what the future might hold. Manuel, who did a good imitation of a French horse racing commentator, has been working hard and thinking ahead. The FAF is the current secretariat of the IFA which is in turn comprised of six sister Federations around the world (the FAF, Iberia, Italy, Bulgaria, Argentina and most recently Germany) and there has been interest expressed from groups in Poland and the UK. The last meeting of the IFA was half a dozen years ago in Valencia, Spain. The next will be in Lyon, France this November. I was pleased to hear that a largish number of non-member groups are to be invited as observers - Freedom Press included. This may be the start of the evolution of a more informal way of organising internationally. The French are also learning that such meetings to discuss policy and so forth are less and less needed these days given that forums exist on the internet where members from some 35 to 40 countries are in contact with each other all the time and there is no need for the huge expense involved in getting a few dozen individuals together from half a dozen countries every five or so years. This doesn't mean that such meetings are unimportant as they give people a chance to meet with those they have been communicating with - in some cases for many years - by other means. Let's just hope Lyons' bars will provide a place where some social cement can be laid.

With the conference over it was time to head back for Cherbourg but there was a problem. My friends who had brought me down in their car no longer had a car due to mechanical difficulties. This was bad news. The good news was that they had an insurance policy which would pay the rather large taxi bill which would be submited at the end of our journey to Cherbourg. The taxi arrived outside the building with the red and black banners. National Front posters were around other parts of the town. We climbed into the car wondering who we would be travelling with. 'You been at the conference then?' asked the driver. 'Um... er... yeah.' 'My dad fought with you lot in the Spanish Civil War.' We had a pleasant trip back to Cherbourg but I still wonder how we can establish a better rapport with taxi drivers.


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