by Eric Vilain
Has there ever been a more sulphurous person as Georges Fontenis in the history of the French libertarian movement of the twentieth century? The man who delights to call himself “Satan” “Prince of Darkness», who, hardly a few years ago, visiting incognito the bookshop of the Monde libertaire handed a check to the shopkeeper, saying: “the Devil’s hand”! He, too, who will see his name assimilated in many historical articles and books to a kind of ideology, “Fontenism” and as an adjective: “Fontenist.”
Evoking George Fontenis is not an easy matter; there is on the subject an important literature, as diverse as passionate. Many autobiographical texts and academic theories, or even militant texts focusing on the history of the movement, deal with the character and very often their partisan arguments help build a myth concerning him.
Maurice Joyeux wrote on that matter in the eighteenth issue of the Anarchist journal La Rue (The Street), a long article entitled “The Fontenis case”. In his introduction, he writes:
For thirty years, there has been a myth in our community. This myth is about the ‘Fontenis affair’. A myth based on one man whose presence among us was relatively short, six or eight years at most, and who exercised authority only for half of that time. For activists who succeeded each other, Fontenis was the ‘bad guy’, the ‘werewolf’ of the fable, ‘the ugly one’ of the tragedy, ‘the Antichrist’ who not only frightened one generation, but also the following generations who had not known him but who recalls him whenever an ideological dispute shakes our movement. The character does not deserve such an ‘honor’, nor such consistency in this ‘classical’ role all human groups invent to get rid of the weight of their ‘sins’ and blame ‘Satan’ for their errors. I find ridiculous this use of ‘the Fontenis case’ by a number of our comrades to explain or justify disagreements. Resorting to the ‘evil’ is nothing but resorting to the irrational, and philosophy has taught us that only literature gives him the look of Goethe’s Faust while he is in us and that this is where we need to uncover it, rather than give it both a fascinating and scary face. And if to exorcise the devil you just need to talk about him, as the good fathers say, then let us talk about the Fontenis case!”
One might be seduced by the thesis of a mythologized Georges Fontenis, a sort of scapegoat for the failures and the divisions of the anarchist movement, the alibi for some of his followers who rejected on him alone a somewhat cumbersome balance-sheet.
For if Fontenis certainly held the lead in this, nothing would have been possible without the blind obedience on the part of his accomplices or the disturbing passivity and carelessness of the militants of an organization claiming anti-authoritarianism. Don’t the anarchists say that where no one obeys, no one commands? If this episode met so much echo and if the evocation of Fontenis still causes so many activists to feel anxiety and anger, the reason is perhaps that it refers directly to a taboo, that of the danger of authoritarian and bureaucratic behaviorss in the libertarian movement. In this brief account, and following the many more or less biased testimonies, or even the works of academic historians or activists, we shall try to carefully trace the route of George Fontenis.