A biography of Georges Fontenis, one of the most controversial figures of the French libertarian movement.
With the death of Georges Fontenis one of the last important figures of the French anarchist movement of the 1940s and 1950s has disappeared. He was one of its most controversial, who even today inspires either hatred or respect. He was born on 27th April 19th 1921 in the Lilas quarter of Paris, into a working class family, the son and grandson of militant socialists. He made contact with the anarchist movement through Spanish solidarity work in 1936, joining a group of young militants. In 1944, he joined the underground CGT (the main French union central), became the secretary of the Jeunesses Anarchistes (Anarchist Youth) and took part in the commissions to root out Vichyists in national education in 1945 as member of a teachers’ union. He took part in the reconstruction of the anarchist movement in 1945 and the founding of the Fédération Anarchiste, and was general secretary in 1946- 1948 and 1950-1953 and director of the FA weekly Le Libertaire.
In 1950 he founded of the Organisation Pensée Bataille (OPB), a secret group within the FA, which gained control over some regions and many leading posts. In 1953 the OPB forced the expulsion of the individualist anarchists and turned the FA into the Fédération Communiste Libertaire (FCL), adopting the Manifesto of Libertarian Communism, written by Fontenis. Members of other tendencies were excluded or left, and these included class struggle anarchists like Maurice Fayolle and Maurice Joyeux (among the militants to found, or rather re-found, the Fédération Anarchiste which still exists). In 1951 he took part in an assassination attempt on Franco, the unsuccessful ‘airborne attentat’ involving a light aircraft, alongside Spanish anarchist exiles.
The FCL was also involved in support for the anti-colonialist struggle in Algeria, resulting in fines, raids and jailings, Fontenis himself being imprisoned in July 1957 for almost two years. The same year the FCL took part in a disastrous election campaign, anathema to most anarchists, leading to the departure of some of its militants. The results were derisory and the main aim seemed to have been to attract rank and file members of the Communist Party whilst drawing a line between the FCL and traditional anarchism. These events together led to the collapse of the FCL. Other factors at play were what other militants saw as the continuation of the OPB, in their eyes unjustified after the exclusion of the individualists.
After serving his sentence he gained employment in national education, moving on to become a schools inspector of the rural zone between 1962-67 and then a teacher of psychopedagogy at L’ecole Nationale d’Instituteurs at Tours. In 1968-1969, Fontenis, together with Daniel Guérin, founded the Mouvement Communiste Libertaire and was a member of its successor the first Organisation Communiste Libertaire. Unfortunately spontaneitist and anti-organisational tendencies under the influence of a particular current of council communism emerged within the first OCL and it collapsed in November 1976, much to the dismay of Fontenis.
During the 1968 events he had a leading role in the Committee of Revolutionary Action in Tours. This was active at the universities, at the factory gates, and in several workplaces. In 1979, he joined the Union des Travailleurs Communistes Libertaires (UTCL) and was a member of its successor, Alternative Libertaire. Within the UTCL he made criticisms of its ‘super-activism’. He wrote L’Autre communisme, his view of the events of the 1950s in 1990 and an important booklet on the Friends of Durruti and the May Day events in Spain in 1937. He was one of the militants who appeared on an UTCL broadcast on French national television in 1982.
In the early 1980s I was living in France for several years and joined the UTCL. I made the acquaintance of Fontenis at several of its conferences. He had always been involved in the working class keep-fit movement, working out on a daily basis and he still kept his trim appearance, as well as always dressing extremely smartly. He had established contact with a group of British anarchists around Ken Hawkes in the 50s and was disappointed when I informed him that Hawkes had disappeared from view.
The creation and methods of the OPB have unfortunately given Fontenis a controversial reputation which persists up to this day. In his book Facing the Enemy Alexandre Skirda, himself favourable to specific anarchist communist organisation, has taken Fontenis to task for these methods and he still brings forth outbursts of condemnation and disgust in certain parts of the French anarchist movement. Set against this are the warm memories that his old comrades of the groups he was involved in still have. One such memory is that of some young anarchist railway workers who turned up on a demonstration in May 1968 with a red and black flag. The Communist Party stewards in their usual thuggish way attempted to seize the flag. Suddenly a man in his fifties appeared and demanded what right they had to do this. This brought out sympathetic responses within the demonstration and the thugs were forced to beat a retreat. The railway workers quickly learnt that this man was Fontenis and some of them carried on successive collaboration with him in the MCL/OCL and then the UTCL.
A convinced atheist, Fontenis had no time for any religion and when the Pope John Paul II prepared to visit Tours in 1996 he was one of the chief activists in the setting up of an anti-visit collective. The collective was finally to mobilise several thousand people on a demonstration at Tours and it was Fontenis, dressed in papal robes, who rode at the head of the demo on a ‘condom–mobile’ spoof of the ‘Pope-mobile’, with a plastic casing and four wooden wheels, carrying a broom in stead of a papal cross.
He died on 9th August 2010 at Reignac sur Indre, near Tours. In the last few years his declining health made him gradually relinquish militant activity. He leaves a wife and daughter.
From Issue 75 of Organise! magazine of the Anarchist Federation www.afed.org.uk