Georges Fontenis, 1920-2010: An international figure in libertarian communism

The man having lived to the age of 90, this is therefore not exactly „sad“ news. But still, he will be missed.

One of the last personalities of the anarchist movement from the 1940s and ’50s has left us with the death of Georges Fontenis in Tours on 9th August 2010 at the age of 90. He will remain in the memory of the workers‘ movement as an untiring fighter for libertarian communism, a supporter of the Algerian independists, a syndicalist with the École Émancipée, one of the leading figures of May 1968 in Tours and a pillar of the Freethought movement and in particular the Indre-et-Loire branch of the Libre-Pensée federation. Until the very end he was also a member of Alternative Libertaire.

Born into a modest working-class family in the Parisian suburb of Lilas, Georges Fontenis became an active anarchist militant as a result of June 1936 and the enthusiasm over the Spanish Revolution. A member of the clandestine CGT under the Occupation, this young teacher in the 19th arrondissement of Paris was to become, after the Liberation, one of the most outspoken militants of the Fédération Anarchiste (FA). In 1946 he was elected general secretary of that organization and became a pole of resistance to the Stalinist hegemony in the workers‘ movement of the time.

In 1946-50, Georges Fontenis, who was very close to the exiled Spaniards of the CNT-FAI, was one of the promoters of the French CNT (CNT-F), an alternative to the Stalinized CGT and the atlanticist CGT-FO. After the collapse of the CNT-F in 1950, he joined the Fédération de l’Éducation nationale (FEN) and was active within its revolutionary syndicalist tendency, the École Émancipée.

Georges Fontenis went on to become one of the leading players in the struggles which affected the anarchist organization in 1951-53 and which led to the FA changing into the Fédération Communiste Libertaire (FCL). This would leave him with a badly damaged reputation. He later explained everything in his memoirs, first published in 1990. Republished in 2008 by Alternative Libertaire under the title „Changer le monde“ (Changing the world), these memoirs constitute a vital font of information for historians of anarchism, but also a political appraisal of this period, one that is not entirely free of self-criticism.

At the outbreak of the Algerian insurrection of Toussaint Rouge in 1954, the FCL dedicated itself to supporting the independentists and Georges Fontenis together with his comrades established one of the largest networks of „couriers“. But it was not its covert actions which were responsible for the FCL being dismantled by the forces of repression, it was its open propaganda. Arrested for questioning by the intelligence services (DST) after several months on the run, Georges Fontenis spent almost a year in prison and was finally banned from teaching within the state schools system in the Paris region. This period was the subject of a documentary in 2001, called „Une résistance oubliée (1954-1957), des libertaires dans la guerre d’Algérie“ (A forgotten resistance: libertarians in the Algerian War).

After his release, Fontenis moved to the Tours region, which he was never to leave. The FCL was destroyed, but he continued nonetheless with his activities in the support network for Algerian independence.

He was again called to play a role in May-June 1968, as one of the leaders of the Tours Comité d’Action Révolutionnaire. In the aftermath, he tried to launch the Libertarian Communist Movement (MCL – Mouvement Communiste Libertaire), strongly tinged with councilism, but was unsuccessful. In 1980, he joined the Union des Travailleurs Communistes Libertaires (UTCL) and its successor organization, Alternative Libertaire.

The life of Georges Fontenis was for decades linked to the labour movement and its libertarian current. He shared its progress, its setbacks and its impassioned struggles. As a political activist, he could draw lessons from failures without giving in to discouragement. But the path of Georges Fontenis was also a personal journey. Shaped by anarchism, he wanted to transform it in a profound way. For this he was sharply criticized by some and viewed by others in France and elsewhere, as a reference point. But does his assessment for all that form a single block, which we must either take or leave? Not at all. But Alternative Libertaire and indeed the International Libertarian Communist movement know what they owe to him, and it is for this reason that we honour a man who now belongs to History.

The activists who worked alongside him in his struggles will long hold the memory of a warm, jovial comrade with the gift of humour and great insight. And this was the image of himself that he left us with in the documentary on him which was made in 2008, „Georges Fontenis, parcours libertaire“.

AL assures its solidarity with his wife Marie-Louise and her family at this painful time. The monthly „Alternative Libertaire“ will dedicate a special edition to George Fontenis in September. We are also considering organizing a public event in his memory to be held in the autumn, probably in Tours.

Alternative Libertaire
10 August 2010

Translation by FdCA-International Relations Office

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