Vive l'anarchie: An interview with French Anarchists

The Presidential elections in France caused a bit of a stir. With the fascist candidate getting into the second round, the media and politicians in Britain went into a flurry. The French took to the streets, with anarchists taking the lead. Black Flag decided to find out more about the election, the protests and French Anarchism.

Article from Black Flag #222 (2002).

Submitted by Fozzie on February 6, 2021

First, perhaps you could say something about yourself and the organisation you are part of?

F: I'm François, a member of the Federation Anarchiste, which includes some 80 activist groups throughout France and Belgium. We have published the weekly Le Monde Libertaire since 1976 (monthly previously) and broadcast the 24 hour radio "Radio Libertaire" in Paris since 1981. You could call it an old lady (almost 50 years now), but as with the rest of the anarchist movement, its activists are mostly young, say 20-40 years old.

N: My name's Nico. I'm 30 and work as an archaeologist. Since 1999, I've been involved in Le Cercle Social, a small nucleus of anarcho-councilist orientated anarchists. I also participate in the International Discussion Network, a world-wide "ultraleft" network.

Now, I live in Lille, in the north of France, were I work with a group of Autonomist comrades, outside any federation. We first met to create the No wars, No Borders collective, and recently, the Collective for a General Strike. We are presently trying to publish a monthly bulletin named "Un autre monde" (Another world). This includes political and social debates, but also practical training (what to do in a demo, how to speak publicly and so on).

Obviously, the results of the presidential elections have brought France to the attention of the world. What can you tell us about the election? What did the anarchists do during the campaign?

F: Obviously, nobody expected these results, us included. The first thing that comes to mind is the unpleasant sight of Le Pen challenging Chirac. But this has somewhat obscured the fact that only a minority of people (indeed less than a quarter) voted for one of the two mainstream candidates, and more people refused to vote at all than vote for any of the single candidates. From this viewpoint, it is a pity that Le Pen's "victory" made us forget that this was actually a defeat for Prime Minister Jospin, a defeat that we anarchists welcomed warmly.

As far as the Federation Anarchiste is concerned, we first planned a "classic" campaign against political elections. That meant leaflets, public gatherings, etc... For instance in Rennes we organised the "Journées Libertaires" where the whole anarchist movement over there (which means a lot of people) gathered to discuss what anarchists effectively can do in the here and now, and what alternatives they can suggest to parliamentary politics.

Of course, the result was somewhat different than expected between the two elections, and there was no easy answer to the question whether we should change our campaign. In particular, the question of voting for Chirac against Le Pen gave rise to several individual answers in most groups within the Federation. Eventually, as far as I know one group publicly urged people to vote, a few continued with the abstention campaign unchanged, and most claimed voting or not for Chirac was not the most important issue and that electing Chirac (i.e. for business as usual) would only deepen the crisis and help the Front National to be stronger even next time.

N: I must admit that we were all surprised by the election results. Everybody just thought there would be a duel between the Socialist prime minister Jospin and the Gaullist president Chirac. There were debates in the media about the "third man": would it be the sovereignist Jean-Pierre Chevenement or the Trotskyists Arlette Laguiller?

Before the first turn of presidential elections, most anarchists were involved in traditional anti voting campaigns. Anarcho-syndicalists from the AIT (International workers association) were very active, for example. But there was not a great deal of interest in the campaigns, because of the already expected massive levels of abstention. Here in Lille, there was no special campaign against election... yet abstention remained a crucial factor, even at the second stage of the elections.

Was the impression given by the UK media of a "far right upsurge" largely an illusion?

F: There was no dramatic upsurge, rather a steady increase for more than 15 years now. The number of Le Pen voters did not decrease between the two elections, which shows that Le Pen voters really mean it... On the other hand, we could remark that many of them did not vote for the far-right at the parliamentary elections in June, and probably abstained instead (as did more than 35% of the people!)

N: Yes and no. Before the elections, the French media and public opinion considered Le Pen politically buried, a problem of the past. He was not even sure he'd get the 500 signatures from town mayors that he needed in order to stand. So it was a surprise when he attracted such a high number of votes. But he didn't get many more actual votes than in the last presidential, in 1995. His presence at the second turn was partly because of the millions of people who preferred abstention or far left candidates (Laguiller, Besancenot and Gluckstein, Trotskyists).

So we can't speak of a far right upsurge, but a continuous presence of the National Front. We shouldn't forget it's a party with 40,000 members, well integrated into neighbourhoods and associations. The main problem is not the percentage of votes for Le Pen, but the fact that 100% of voting people at the second turn approved candidates with racist and securitarist ideas, either Le Pen or Chirac.

What do you think of the distribution of FN votes? Why, for example, so many votes in the East of France? What are the underlying causes for the vote?

F: I have no idea. In the south-east there are a number of former "pieds-noirs", that is, people of European descent expelled from Algeria in 1962 and that may be of some influence, but as I live in Brittany, where the FN is historically weak, I am not best placed to answer. In general, Le Pen is popular among what we call "petits commerçants et artisans" and it is also commonly acknowledged that many unemployed people or vulnerable workers vote for Le Pen (even if many more do not vote at all). Also, there was an incredible campaign of scare stories on the TV in March-April that certainly helped Le Pen.

N: There are various interpretations, because the FN electorate is somewhat diverse. But what is interesting is that the areas with high FN voting are those with high unemployment. In the east, large industries were dismantled by the Left government (Socialists and communists) after 1981. This doesn't mean that former workers all vote for FN (most don't vote), but there are big economic problems, social tensions, and former "workers parties" are absent.

The media said that FN electors were all racists; this isn't necessarily so. They also said it was a "protest vote", but this doesn't explain the progression of FN votes since 1984. There are others causes, but the media don't like to discuss them. For example, part of Le Pen's campaign was against the Euro and "Euglobalisation", and this theme attracted some electors. Europe and globalisation - themes used by all candidates - scare a lot of people. It's connected with unemployment (because of delocalisation of factories) and US domination (an important theme in France). So part of the FN vote is a demonstration of sovereignism.

There was a record abstention rate of 29%. Does this suggest apathy or rejection/protest? What effect did it have on the election?

F: I wouldn't claim that these 29% abstentionists were anarchist ones! However, it's a clear sign of distrust of parliamentary politics: we have seen a regular alternating between left and right in power for more than 20 years now, and most people realise it doesn't change anything important in their daily lives. It's no more pleasant to be fired under a left-wing government than under a right one.

N: Abstention is always difficult to interpret. We should be more precise. Almost 40% of workers don't vote, and 50% of the unemployed. And we should add 25% of workers and almost 50% of unemployed don't even sign on the electoral register, so aren't counted as "abstentionists". The majority of the working class don't vote. But in some other categories, like middle managers, abstentionism is growing. It's the same thing in workplace elections, for trade-unions: abstention is massive.

Now, is this apathy or protest? Both. This is protest, as abstentionists choose not to vote as "they're all the same, they're all thieves". But this doesn't mean these people will automatically join social movements, strikes and so on. The positive aspect is they are no more influenced by "workers parties" like Socialists or Communists.

It is often claimed that anarchist abstentionism aids the right. France seems to confirm this. How do you reply?

F: Oh, it is little help, compared to the aid given by "left" governmental politics over the past years...

N: It is mostly the Left electorate that don't vote anymore, which profits the Right. That's true. I'm not sure, even being an optimist, that massive abstention has anything to do with anarchist propaganda. People experienced left government and understood it was no help for workers. The question is now: will there be a new Left? And who will mould it? Radical reformists? Trotskyists? Libertarians? Or will the old Left rise again? This is still unclear. This is always a difficult question, because we must kill the link between us and the "Left", we mustn't fear it's end. Real socialism can only be found in struggle, not in elections. Even for anarchists, this basic reality is sometimes difficult to hear.

It's been said that some anarchists have been departing from their usual boycott of bourgeois elections to "stop fascism" by voting for Chirac. Is that true? Have libertarians managed to resist the widespread call to vote Chirac?

F: Some will have certainly voted for Chirac, not exactly to stop fascism - but to prevent the possible immediate dynamic effects of a big vote for Le Pen among his supporters. A public call to vote for Chirac is another story, and I am aware of only one group within the Federation that made such a call. Some other groups, along with Le Monde Libertaire, called for abstention; in Rennes, like in most places, we concentrated on two points: first, explaining that we did not regret having contributed to the fall of Jospin; second, explaining that the only chance to avoid fascism, on the 5th May and in the future, was daily social activism and "reprendre nos vies en main" (to take our lives into our own hands).

N: This is true. To understand it better, we should explain the debates within the French libertarian movement over the last few years. Some people feel uneasy with abstention, as they know it's not the result of anarchist propaganda, and see it doesn't lead to political activism.

They became interested in Murray Bookchin's "libertarian communalism" and some said that participation in local elections could be compatible with anarchist ideas. Others, like Alternative Libertaire (AL), had stood candidates for the national assembly in the past. So there is no general agreement on the abstention question.

AL officially called for a vote for Chirac to defeat Le Pen. This wasn't much of a surprise, as they generally adopt the same positions as the Trotskyist LCR (Revolutionary Communist League) in most situations. There were also groups of the Anarchist Federation and various individuals, like Babar (Roger Noel, former editor of Alternative Libertaire in Brussels - which is not the same as the
French AL) and an important number of CNT trade-unionists.

The OCL (Libertarian Communist Organisation), the AIT and all radical, autonomist and ultra-left groups called for abstention. The pressure against abstention was very strong. In a general assembly, an autonomist comrade was insulted and almost lynched, as he explained what Chirac had done against migrants and "sans-papiers". We've been insulted and treated like fascists every day.

What alternative do you present instead of the "vote thief rather than fascist" idea?

F: That if we stick to this idea, we'll get both: first the thief, and then the fascist. That's again why we found it important to concentrate on the long term (far more important) issues than the (obvious) single issue of the 5th May results.

N: Our first leaflet, on the Monday after the elections, was entitled "Neither thief, nor fascist, general strike!" We explained, in leaflets, in a small pamphlet, in meetings and general assemblies, that the election results masked the reality of social crisis. That most workers didn't vote for the Left because of the 35 hour law (that introduced flexibility in most workplaces, increasing rather than decreasing working hours), that this social / work crisis, couldn't have a vote solution, but a strike solution. We didn't insist too much on abstention but stressed that the real answer lay in class struggle.

On May Day, our leaflet "On May 5, nothing will be solved! General strike!" was generally welcomed by workers on a trade-union demo.

A lot of people said to us: "we'll vote on 5 May, but we'll continue demos against Chirac after".

Do you think the absurd, but typical, multitude of left candidates impacted on the election result?

F: Why absurd? It is no more absurd than the "one left vote only" politics that the Socialist Party and its allies want to promote, without any political content other than beating the FN, at the forthcoming parliamentary elections (and indeed they succeeded in this).

N: There were 16 candidates in the elections, more than the previous one: 3 Trotskyists, 5 governmental Left, 4 liberal Right, 2 conservative Right and 2 far Right. The Left and Right government or wannabe government parties tend to present candidates at the first round to ascertain their "influence" and prepare negotiations for deputies elections (in June) and ministerial seats. Remember that the Left government was a five - party coalition (Socialists, Communists, Sovereignists, Ecologists and Radicals).

The Far Right has been divided for a few years: allowing Le Pen to appear as less extremist than its former ally Megret (MNR). Trotskyists from LCR and LO (Workers
Struggle) were united for the European deputies elections, but disagreed on the presidential elections. And PT (Workers Party) never made alliances with other Trotskyists... But we can't say the multiplication of candidates had an impact. This is a political representation crisis that has an impact on the number of candidates.

One of the obvious calls by the Left here is for "unity" and so some kind of "united front" (particularly in elections). What do you think of this?

F: That's pure crap. This call for so-called unity is nothing more than a call to back government parties, be they from the left or the right. It is also another attempt to avoid any analysis of the rejection of these parties by the majority of the people.

N: Before the elections, the governmental Left was divided, because they needed to emphasise their difference with the Socialist party to bump up their share of the votes. After the elections, they all united... behind Chirac, whom they had attacked as a thief a few days before. The Right didn't have to bother as the left were doing the work for them - posters proclaiming "socialists with Chirac", "Green with Chirac"...

Are the anarchists suggesting an alternative idea to the "united front" idea? If so, what is it?

F: Of course yes. We call for a social front. Meaning that it is the duty of grass roots people to organise daily against fascism and capitalism, and that's another deal, much more challenging but much more fruitful than any electoral front. Where people have learnt their strength, and where they realise that it might be used to reclaim social progress for all instead of another leader, then there is no room left for fascism.

N: The only alternative is class struggle. It was somewhat difficult, in a few days, to propose a really coherent alternative, so everybody used "standard" slogans or solutions, like "if voting really changed anything they'd make it illegal" or, like us and a few others, calls for a general strike. Most of us don't really know how write a good leaflet or poster - that will be read and understood by most people, without self-reference - or how to speak publicly in a hostile crowd or general assembly. Our weakness lies in our amateurism in propaganda.

The Left over here is pointing to the large vote for Trotskyist parties. Are the Trotskyists starting to fill the vacuum left by the Communist Party?

F: In some ways, yes, but the actual picture is somewhat more complicated. The Communist Party began to sink 20 years ago, and many of the people now voting for Trotskyist sects never had the opportunity to vote Communist when it was prominent among the left. Roughly speaking, you can divide the "Trotskyist" votes into two: first, there's the classical radical left vote, deeply rooted in the working class in the usual sense; and second, there is a vote in sympathy with the anti-globalisation struggles as seen in Seattle, Gothenburg, Genoa and other big demos.

The first one mainly reflects Lutte Ouvriere's (LO) propaganda, and the second one suits better the Ligue Communist Revolutionnaire (LCR). In both cases, it is very doubtful that the voters had any opinion nor knowledge about Trotskyism...

N: More than 11% of votes were for Trotskyists, mostly for Arlette Laguiller (LO) and Olivier Besancenot (LCR). As "Arlette" called for a blank vote during the second round, a lot of her middle class electors now sympathise with Besancenot, who conducted a good campaign. He was unknown, as a young worker (27 years, a postman, as his posters say) but he surprised every one by gaining more than 4% of the vote.

The LCR is not a classical Trotskyists organisation. In 1966, they were a castro-guevarist scission of the Communist Party. They were very leftist and militarist after 1968, but became more moderate over the years, and are critical of Trotsky and Lenin's heritage. Its militants are very active in radical unionism like SUD (essentially in public sector industries like rail or post) and in associated movements. So their political niche is more the former left socialism than communist party.

LO is more classically Trotskyist. They were created in the fifties by a small nucleus of workers, with a very Bolshevik conception of organisation and militant roles. From the beginning, their success has been the "workplace bulletins" they distribute in every workplace where they have militants or contacts. Since 1974, Arlette Laguiller (former leader of a bank employees strike) has been their candidate and spokeswoman (but not the leader of the party). She's very popular, being interviewed by all papers and even having a Muppet on a well-known TV show. From a very workerist and revolutionary organisation, LO has become an electoralist one. LO is very influential in former "red towns", because former Communist voters turn to Arlette...who calls for new a Communist party.

How do you think the large Trotskyist vote will affect the overall labour movement and revolutionary movement? Will they be pushed back into the ballot box and off the streets?

F: As far as we can see, this large Trotskyist vote does not mean more Trotskyist activism. Few Trotskyist voters were eager to see their candidates effectively elected: they wanted to vote "as left as possible" (words taken from Lutte Ouvriere propaganda), or more generally to express that they belonged to the left, but rejected the government's politics.

On the other hand, that they expressed it that way (voting) rather than organising for, say a general strike, shows that the labour and revolutionary movement has still a lot of work to convince that there is a way other than electoral politics.

N: It's still unclear. Rather than the streets, the real question is the left's presence in the workplace. It's clear now that there is no far Left in France, as the classic left niche has been filled by LCR and LO. So there's a gap to be filled. But who will fill it? Others Trotskyists are mostly satellized by LCR or LO. So there is room for libertarians and ultra-leftists... if we take our chance and make the right decisions.

I saw that during the initial demonstrations against Le Pen, the CNT was given prominent mention. What can you tell us of the role libertarians played in the street protests?

F: Libertarians had a double role there: first, we have far reaching experience of daily struggle against the extreme right, while most protesters where quite new to it. And second, having something else to say than "vote thief Chirac on the 5th may" was quite appealing for many people.

N: At first the street protests were very spontaneous, organised by pupils and students (except in Paris, were they were in holidays...). When political organisations began to have a visible presence, pupils and students ceased to come... This is true even for anarchists and radical unionists.

The CNT demonstration was explicitly mentioned in the French reports of the May Day protests against Le Pen. Could you summarise the anarchist input into the May Day demonstrations?

F: As I don't live in Paris, I can't give direct evidence of the anarchist May Day demonstration there, but it was obviously impressive. I think there was an anarchist block in more than 50 demos on May Day.

In Rennes, all the libertarian groups gathered in the town (Federation Anarchiste, Alternative Libertaire, CNT, SCALP, and also libertarian squatters), and our block was quite remarkable, and also one of the most dynamic of this very big demo. Of course, here like everywhere else, our message concentrated on what to do and how to organise after Chirac had been re-elected.

N: For the last few years, the media systematically mentions any CNT presence on a demo. On May Day, this was massive, with around 10 000 people with Red and Black banners. Here in Lille, there were two libertarian groupings on May Day: a big one with the CNT and classical anarchists, and another with our Collective. We wanted to be with the CNT... but we had a problem with the sound car and were late... At the end of the demo, there were a lot of people with us, but it turned into more of a street party rather than a political demo...

Outside of participating in the street protests, what else are the anarchists doing against Le Pen?

F: Firstly, there has not been one venue of an extreme-right leader in Rennes, (and almost anywhere in France), not one public FN meeting without anarchists participating in street protests and, more than once, initiating them. These last five years, we have often been alone and, to be frank, too few in number to be anything other than a symbolic presence. But in the past we were able to prevent meetings taking place by blocking the streets etc.

Otherwise, we try to put into practice our idea that daily grassroots activism is the only effective answer to Le Pen's ideas. We do it as well as we can, with our limited means.

N: There was a lot of debate on the Web, mailing lists and Indymedia, around elections, abstention or not, Le Pen social and economic problems, and so on. During the two weeks of demonstrations, there was very little direct action against fascists. No one wanted to provide the FN with an incident that they could use to win.

Turning away from the election, can you summarise the current state of the French libertarian movement?

F: The French libertarian movement has always been difficult to summarise. All I can say is that it is quite lively, and fast evolving.

N: We can list the groups, by order of influence. The big ones: CNT (National Confederation of Workers) is the most important organisation, with around 3000 militants. They evolved from anarcho-syndicalism to radical unionism after they were excluded from the IWA. They attract both libertarians interested in class struggle, former members of classic unions like CGT and CFDT, young workers. It's likely they will rapidly evolve outside the libertarian field, even if there are anarchists inside.

The Federation Anarchiste was for a long time the most important group, and has a weekly paper, a radio station and some workshops and libraries. They are influenced by Synthesism, and local groups frequently have very different positions on various issues (in elections, some voted Chirac, others didn't). A year ago some FA leaders launched a call for Unity of libertarians, with some success in some towns. They call for a "social anarchism" and are somewhat moderate.

The CNT-AIT is the official IWA anarcho-syndicalist group in France. Though smaller than the CNT, they're more strict on principles and stay on revolutionary class struggle ground. Part of its membership is influenced by council communism.

Alternative Libertaire is officially of a platformist background, and influenced by Daniel Guerin's synthesis between anarchism and Trotskyism. They're present in trade-unions and social movements.

The Organisation Communiste Libertaire has been influenced by autonomism and council communism, but differs from the ultra-left in its support of national liberation movements.

No Pasaran is a former anti-fascist network turned to anti-capitalism and libertarianism.

But we should add to this list a lot of local collectives and small organisations, based on radical, squat or ultra-left backgrounds, with cordial links but without formal networks, like Maloka (Dijon), Ab Irato (Paris), Tranquille le Chat (cool da'cat, Paris) or Cercle social (Lille). Part of the ultra-left is also grouped in an International Discussion Network, which we also take part. This is not an organisation, rather an exchange of analysis and theory in various countries.

We can summarise the current state of French anarchism by a few tendencies: a strong attraction for radical unionism, a difficult search for unity - around an open but moderate social anarchism, and an apparition of radical groups to the left of "official anarchism".

Do the libertarian groups and federations co-operate together? How much and in what way?

F: There has been a lot of effort over the past two years to get libertarian groups co-operating together, and I am quite optimistic on that.

At a local level, it is now common for various groups to put their names to common tracts, to appear jointly in protests, to invite each other to their public meetings, and even to organise common actions, like we are doing in Rennes with a "gratis public transport" campaign.

At a federal, or national, level, things have to be done a little bit more formally and the federations are beginning to take into account these local changes, and to behave with respect to each other with the mutual trust we should expect. I'm not saying that everything is wonderful, but the situation is in general evolving in a satisfactory direction.

N: There are conflictual, but existing relations, between the "big ones". The recent "Call for unity of libertarians", launched by the FA, was immediately joined by an important member of No Pasaran, and some groups of OCL and AL. The CNT now authorises its members to also be members of other political groups, including anarchist ones, but is still very defiant. Most organisations signed the call for an international anarchist network. Everybody is formally for unity, but there are problems over the content of this unity.

No unity can be found on the basis of "unity for unity's sake", nor by political discussion without a real movement. The only thing that will destroy old barriers and create a new "anarchist landscape" is a social movement, like the way the 1995 general strike brought about the renewal of the CNT.

Is the influence of anarchism and revolutionary syndicalism increasing? It appears so as the anarchists continue to crop up in French news reports (at least the ones I see!).

F: Yes. Over the past ten years, anarchism has gained back some strength. Moreover, as far as I can see, we are more often viewed as promoters of a political project - whether you agree with it or not - than as poets or bomb throwers. But we should not be satisfied with this alone, this is the very first step of many towards the revolution; and second, we will have to face more attacks as we become a threat.

For instance, the local newspaper "Ouest-France" refused to release any of our communiqués during the presidential campaign, or to announce our public meetings or concerts in the same period, including the "Journees Libertaires" I mentioned above. This attitude is somewhat new and probably significant.

N: It's difficult to say. The old far left in France has become so moderate, and Stalinism / orthodox Communism has become so weak that anarchism seems the only far left alternative. So the daily news can't ignore it. The CNT, which was a small group ten years ago, has become a respectable organisation, having lost some of its references to anarcho-syndicalism along the way.

Do you have many links with the wider labour and left-wing groups? If so, what kind?

F: You cannot speak of links. We clearly don't have the same agenda as the political left, and should never forget it. On the other hand, we may unite with the left for a demonstration, or some specific struggle.

This was the case in the past for instance in the defence of illegal immigrants. But it happens more rarely now, as the political left has shown its true colours in power and as the, say, Leninist left is mostly divided between those who try to pull the political left further to the left (typically, the LCR) and those who won't ally themselves with anyone, political left or anarchists (typically Lutte Ouvriere).

N: Our choice is autonomy. Leftists are boring, even anarchist ones. When we call for an action, we don't contact organisations, or if we do, only for very practical reasons. When our student comrades wrote their call for a World Strike Against War, it was translated into fifteen languages and distributed by people on the five continents.

They got support from anarchists of various world-wide groups, ultra-left commies from Russia and outside, trots, esperantists, pacifists, Buddhists, Christians, and so on. But not one line of the text, which was anti-nationalist and anti-statist, was changed. The strike itself wasn't really a success, even if there were some good things in a few French and US towns, but it was a good example: if you have a good proposal at the right time, you can do it. Anarchists generally lack self-confidence, or audacity. That's our main problem. We should have made this call on September 12...

There are so many interesting people outside of anarchist and leftists circles. I've created a widely open mailing list for discussion, and use various others, and post communiqués to Indymedia.

I also participate in the International Discussion Network with people form various countries. But I think that our main effort should be speaking with people outside the activist ghetto...

Another weakness is our presence (or lack of) in the labour movement. Most of the Autonomous comrades in Lille are pupils or students, and us - workers and unemployed, are a minority. This has an evident impact on our practice and positions. Having a greater presence in the workplace is an objective.

Since the communist orthodoxy has fallen, anarchists have been given a relatively positive outlook in France. Most know singers that were anarchists (Brassens, Ferré,...), farmer-leader José Bové refers to anarchism, and even Robert Hue, a communist party leader, says he is libertarian. The only problem is when you begin to explain what revolutionary anarchism is, people feel a little troubled... Oh, you aren't gentle cool pacifist that just dislikes McDonalds and Bill Gates? Oh, you really want a classless, nationless, stateless, moneyless society? Eeeh...

Obviously in France you have numerous dual unions (i.e. revolutionary unions like the CNT). Does having dual unions make spreading libertarian ideas and tactics among fellow workers harder or easier? Do CNT activists become isolated from other union members? How do you break down barriers?

N: The first reaction of classical unions when a radical one, like SUD or CNT, appears in a workplace, is to denounce them as "non- representative". But in France everybody can freely choose which union to join, and a union is considered representative if they have a real section with active members. Each time there has been a judgement about representation, radicals have won.

Does the presence of radical unions enable the spread of libertarian ideas? It would be a somewhat ambitious (or Leninist!) vision. It is workers who search for the right terrain in which to express radical ideas and practice. They find new unions (like SUD) or old and tiny, but radical ones (like CNT) in which to do this.

For a long time, CFDT - even if they emerged from Christian background – were a part of this radical, "anarcho-syndicalist" niche. As soon as they left it, there was a need for a new organisation to do this. It's because there's a libertarian practice in workers that CNT or SUD are able to be part of the union landscape, not the contrary.

Do anarchists also work in the larger reformist unions like the CGT? If so, how does that relate to those in revolutionary unions? How successful is such work?

F: Yes, and I would say that it is still the majority of unionised anarchists. In general, they try to keep comradely with comrades in revolutionary unions. In fact, the dispute about which union should be chosen is more or less the same as in Anglo-Saxon countries. It may be useful to note that many comrades try to forge links between anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists in different unions, be it through the social movement commission within the FA, through informal information bulletins for syndicalists (our comrades in Lyon have edited one for several years), or through more formal groups like the old-timer Ecole Emancipee for educational workers.

N: Yes. In fact, there are anarchists in almost all big unions (CGT, CFDT, FO, FSU), for historical or local reasons. For example, the print correctors CGT union has been an anarchist bastion for a very long time. The former FA leader, Maurice Joyeux, was a known FO figure. And so on. There's now a network for anarchists in trade-unions, to link them beyond centrals. In a workplace, workers don't ask if you're anarchist, communist, socialist or even right-wing, they watch to see if you are a good "unionist", or simpler still, if you defend them well.

What other areas are anarchists active in?

F: Squats, education, mutualism, feminism, local organising, fights against nuclear plants or GMO, defence of civil liberties, promotion of public services (water supply, public transports...) in an anarchist perspective... in fact, any worthy social struggle where an anarchist happens to be there.

N: There are anarchists active in almost all the associative and social movements. For example, there's a strong push within the ecological movement against nuclear power stations, to expose those governmental Greens that now discretely support nuclear power. A lot of anarchists also work with the sans-papiers movement, despite the difficulties in fighting against the Stalinists and former Maoists, well embedded in the movement. That's one of our problems in Lille. There are also movements for free public transport and so on.

The FN seem to be tapping into concern about crime ("law and order"). This is also an issue here. It is also considered a difficult question for anarchists. Have the French anarchists made any practical proposals to counter this problem this side of the revolution?

F: Indeed, it is a serious question, and it is difficult to give serious answers in a few words. To sum up, every anarchist is aware that there is no solution to this problem this side of the revolution.

We know that most crimes, most individual violence just mirrors the daily violence we suffer from the state and the economic (dis)order. On the other hand, we also know that, sadly, when a car burns, it is in all probability a poor person's car, and when someone is assaulted in a train, he or she is seldom a rich capitalist.

Hence the best we can do this side of the revolution is to explain that violence against your mates is no solution, nor are calls for stronger repression, since they can only bring more violence in return. Sorry, but this is one issue where the only answer this side of the revolution is to go the other side of the revolution!

N: This is a recurring question, whenever we have nothing else to discuss... I'm not sure we have better answers than anyone else, except the standard: "in a moneyless society, crime will be rare" and "direct democracy will solve any problem in a democratic way". In fact, we all lack interesting and new "descriptions" of "another world", communism, socialism, anarchy or call-it-how-you-like. This is one of the questions we discuss in International Discussion Network, trying to integrate new aspects of problems like technological revolution, ecological problems, refusal and abolition of work, and so on. But it's interesting to see that most comrades prefer to speak of more classic subjects like globalisation, empire and nationalism, nature of state or class analysis, than positive questions about a future society. We lack a real alternative; in the anarchist press, socialism often feels like a ghost, an undead project, without any link with our present activity. Here, we try to emphasise self-aid in society as a basis for a future world. If violence is a part of us, self-aid is also. Use our violence to abolish society, self-aid to create it. With this perspective, I'm probably somewhere between the new Kropoktinian school of natural science (Franz De Waal, Stephen Jay Gould) and communisation current theoreticians (like Gille Dauvé).

How do you feel about the future? Do you think that anarchism in France will grow?

F: It is growing already, and I have every hope that this will continue, if only because it is the last idea that we've never experienced, because the other known revolutionary theory (Marxism) is deeply distrusted, and because the current state of affairs is unbearable. But it is now our duty to make anarchism attractive and trustworthy, and that's a big deal.

N: Yes, definitely yes. Its "ecological niche" has grown. But what sort of anarchism? Radical-reformism "social anarchism" or autonomous, revolutionary anarchism and anarcho-Marxism? Probably both, at different rates. I feel that the real movement doesn't lie in one or another pole, one or another tendency, but in diversity and multiplicity. We don't know the way to social change, as the only answer to his question is social change itself. There are many currents, that attract different people, sociologically and psychologically. Now, we must make choices, be audacious and self-confident. If we always complain and say "it will not work", we'll lose, we'll be anarchist losers.

Can you think of any lessons from French anarchism that we in Britain could learn from?

F: Something that strikes me in the Anglo-Saxon world in general, is that you seem to still pay a lot of attention to formal frontiers between the classical trends within anarchism, that is communist anarchism, anarcho-syndicalism and individualist anarchism. I think anarchism as a whole becomes an interesting issue for the here and now when these frontiers come down, and when we admit that, as individuals or groups, we can find food in all these old places, re-consider them not as dogmas, but as useful tools to put together to help us to understand what we can do today.

In France, this seems to be now the general feeling, and that helps co-operation between groups: not that we all agree on everything (it would be nonsense for anarchists), but we are learning to admit that one side does not always have the right answer.

N: The real problem is that this question can still be posed. Capitalists created a united Europe, and us, anti-national anarchists and communists, we still think of ourselves as "French" or "British" or "Greek" anarchists. History rolls over us... I don't think we can do a "European call for unity of anarchists", it would mean nothing, as there's so many tendencies under the same "anarchism" word. But making links between borders, making an effort to meet friends of the same sensibility outside our local towns and countries is an important thing. The aim is not to sign common declarations between big organisations of each country, it's to create personal, friendly relationship between real people form collectives beyond borders.

Any final thoughts? Anything you think we have not covered?

N: Be combative in struggles. Study reality in its complexity. Change the world.