Monday, 25 May 2015

A Paris memoir from 1978

One thing about the interwebs is that you sometimes get to find out about someone you’ve been disconnected from for years. It happened to me yesterday, when I discovered that the guy who had been my “handler” in Lutte Ouvière had died in 2011 aged 62, following a stroke. I’d noticed that some prominent French administrator had the same name and googled to see if it was the same guy. It wasn’t, but up came the obituary of Denis Robin, comrade Cerdon, and with it a whole bunch of memories of the nineteen-year-old me from 1978.

Back then I had finished school, having taken the Oxbridge entrance exams before Christmas. I therefore had about nine months on my hands and wanted to spend it in Paris, where I had friends (and still do) through a language exchange with a family there. I landed a job as a courier with an agency called the Banque Centrale de Compensation which recorded transactions on the Paris commodity exchange, the Bourse de Commerce. This meant that I spent my days running from our office to the Bourse and to the HQs of the various coffee, cocoa, soya and sugar companies.

I’d long been interested in the French left and had even done a school project on May 1968, sucking up lots of information on the various groupuscules. This was, I think it fair to say, alternately irritating and amusing to my French friends who were stalwarts of the Socialists, then in electoral alliance with the barely post-Stalinist Parti Communiste. After one dinner-table debate they expressed scepticism about whether my money would ever follow my mouth, and I took this as something of a challenge. The following day, when I was making a delivery to the main offices of the Crédit Lyonnais, I encountered a bunch of militants selling Lutte Ouvrière, a Trotskyist weekly newpaper and engaged them in conversation. One of the people there was comrade Cerdon, and I agreed to meet him on the evening of Mayday for a conversation, ideally having joined up with their contingent on the big demonstration. I never found LO demonstrators that day and ended up marching with UNEF, the Communist student union. But we did meet in a café in the Place de la République that evening and began one of a series of long conversations about politics and related matters, the purpose of which was to recruit me to the organization.

Lutte Ouvrière are an odd bunch even by Trotskyist standards with some serious doctrinal peculiarities. But their method with middle-class recruits was not to douse them in the Marxist classics (though I did get to read Socialism Utopian and Scientific and Lissagaray’s History of the Commune) but to encourage them to read novels and go to seem movies which would proletarianise their perspective on life. We read Christiane Rochefort’s Les Stances à Sophie and Les Petits Enfants du siècle, as well as Zola’s Germinal and Victor Serge’s Ville Conquise and S’il est minuit dans le siècle. (I can’t remember the films and a search for French films of 78 produces no flickers of recognition.) Before long I was meeting regularly with a small group of members (I was classed as a mere sympathizer) and going along to sell papers at markets in St Denis and other suburbs in the ceinture rouge.[1] This was great fun. We’d arrive at a market — the stallholders would be friendly and I remember a fishmonger giving us prawns for free — and stand shouting “Achetez, Lizez Lutte Ouvrière, hebdomadaire communiste révolutionaire!” for about an hour before adjourning to a café.

The assignment I probably disliked most, but which sticks in my mind, is leafletting the Kodak factory in Vincennes. As I living in the in the posh 16th,[2] the long trip to Vincennes meant getting to the Kléber Metro for 5am to make the rendezvous with the early shift. It was my first real encounter with French factory workers and I was surprised, and a bit shocked to find so many of them downing coffee with calvados in the morning dark before the shift. Goodness knows what they thought of a middle-class English boy standing outside the gates handing out barely-legible roneoed leaflets urging revolutionary commitment. Afterward, the Metro back to to the centre of town and a day’s work feeling exhausted. (My work, to be honest, was pretty undemanding and nobody was watching too closely, so I could spend a good portion of the day wandering in and out of bookshops and generally exploring Paris whilst ostensibly being out on a delivery.)

Lutte Ouvrière also brought me my first girfriend, a Brazilian sociology grad student and also an “organized sympathizer” with whom I shared the job of working on the Lutte Ouvrière pancake stall at the PCF’s Fete de l’Humanité (a task repeated at the LCR’s Fete Rouge, where we got to see the Clash). Revolutionary organizations – perhaps political organizations generally – are a great vehicle for getting shy and inhibited people, as I was, to make friends and forge relationships, and a tone of contempt for “bourgeois morality” is a good part of that. However, being in a relationship with someone meant that I could no longer think of the organization’s weird policies on sex and contraception as being a merely theoretical bit of quirkiness. We had to be more practical than that.

Come September Oxford beckoned. Lutte Ouvrière were not happy. They thought I should stay in Paris, register at a French university and complete my training as a revolutionary. But, fearing parental disapproval as much as anything, I was determined to return, and comrade Cerdon suggested I could play a useful role in England, disseminating copies to their bilingual theoretical journal Lutte de Class to English lefties. I was under firm instructions to write to him regularly, and packages of revolutionary literature would turn up at Oriel College every few weeks. It was only because of this need to communicate that I discovered his real name, unlike the Trots I came to know back home, party names were a serious business and people used them to address one another. Real names were need-to-know.

It is fair to say that I was having my doubts about LO well before I returned to England. The contraception policy had set off alarm bells and their odd Hegelian explanation of why the Soviet Union was a “workers’ state” (albeit degenerated) whereas the satellite countries were not left me totally unconvinced. Still, I liked my comrades and they were unlike any other people I had met in my life till then, so I kept up the contact for a few months.

A summer later I was again in Paris, seeing friends, and I was out browsing in the Fnac Montparnasse. Of all the bookshops in all the world, who should walk in but Denis Robin. It was a tense meeting, followed by a tenser recriminatory conversation over several express. Cerdon predicted that without his guiding hand I would deviate quickly from the revolutionary path, a claim I disputed but said “on verra”, as we parted. I did indeed deviate, but I’m still of the left (though not a revolutionary Marxist) and knowing him and his friends is not something I can regret.

Celebrity footnote:

[1]: One strange encounter I had selling papers happened not in the suburbs but on the Boulevard St Michel, where we were approached by an English guy, who wanted to talk. He left me a name and address to call when I was back in England, which I never did. He was called Dave Nellist, and he was from Coventry. A few years later someone of that name was Coventry’s MP before being expelled from the party as a leading member of Militant. What’s always confused me is that the man I spoke to talked, among other things, of his church activities including playing the organ. Same guy? I suppose it must have been.)

Scatological footnote:

[2]: I was living in a chambre de bonne on the sixth floor in the 16th arrondissement. The 16th is the poshest area of Paris but the servants’ rooms at the top were nearly all rented out to immigrant families from the former African colonies. I think my room was the only one inhabited by a single person. It was cheap, but fairly grim. There was one toilet to the floor with the then-common Frech arrangements of footprints on the floor. There was no conventional light switch. Rather, you had to enter by the light from the corridor, assume the position and then lock the door, with the lock, in theory, tripping the light. It didn’t always work and I generally did my best to hang on until I got to the office.

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