In the mid to late 1960s the French far-left developed a practice called établissement in which intellectuals and students left their comfortable bourgeois lives to militate alongside the working class on the factory floor. The term was taken from a French translation of a Mao Tse-Tung quote:

Puisque les intellectuels sont appelés à servir les masses ouvrières et paysannes, ils doivent tout d’abord les comprendre et bien connaître leur vie, leur travail et leur mentalité. Nous recommandons aux intellectuels d’aller parmi les masses, dans les usines, dans les campagnes. Il serait fort mauvais qu’ils ne se trouvent jamais, de toute leur vie, avec des ouvriers et des paysans. Nos travailleurs de l’État, nos écrivains, nos artistes, nos enseignants et nos travailleurs de la recherche scientifique doivent saisir toutes les occasions possibles pour entrer en contact avec les ouvriers et les paysans. Certains peuvent aller dans les usines ou à la campagne juste pour jeter un coup d’oeil et faire un tour; cela s’appelle “regarder les fleurs du haut de son cheval”, ce qui vaut toujours mieux que de rester chez soi et ne rien voir. D’autres peuvent y séjourner plusieurs mois pour mener des enquêtes et se faire des amis; cela s’appelle “descendre de cheval pour regarder les fleurs”. D’autres encore peuvent y rester et y vivre longtemps, par exemple, deux ou trois ans, ou même plus; cela s’appelle “s’établir”.

[Since they are to serve the masses of workers and peasants, intellectuals must, first and foremost, know them and be familiar with their life, work and ideas. We encourage intellectuals to go among the masses, to go to factories and villages. It is very bad if you never in all your life meet a worker or a peasant. Our state personnel, writers, artists, teachers and scientific research workers should seize every opportunity to get close to the workers and peasants. Some can go to factories or villages just to look around; this may be called “looking at the flowers on horseback” and is better than doing nothing at all. Others can stay for a few months, conducting investigations and making friends; this may be called “dismounting to look at the flowers”. Still others can stay and live there for a considerable time, say, two or three years or even longer; this may be called “settling down”.][1]

 

This was not the first movement of intellectuals to take up factory work, and nor was it even the first French movement of intellectuals in the factory. In France, the tradition dates back to the Saint Simonians at the beginning of the nineteenth century, who incited the polytechnicians to get hired in the foundries in order to teach the proletariat how to take control of the factories.[2] Jules Vallès, in his novel Le Bachelier, describes a phenomenon similar to that of the établi. Also, in the early twentieth century, there were individual occurrences of intellectuals working clandestinely in the factory; writers like Jacques Valdour, Michèle Aumont and Jean de Vincennes all wrote of their experiences on the factory floor.[3] But perhaps the best-known individual experiment in this practice was Simone Weil’s working undercover alongside the proletariat, summarised in her book La condition ouvrière.[4] France also saw movements that were less individual, such as the movement of the prêtres-ouvriers (worker priests) and the postwar Trotskyites at Voix ouvrière/Lutte ouvrière.[5]

The movement of établissement proper began with theUJCML (Union des jeunesses communistes marxistes-léninistes), in 1967, a year after the creation of the UJCML, the second congress was held before the school break.[6] The theme of this congress was the importance of the enquête (investigation) and the enquêtes of the summer of 1967 were divided into three separate events. The first and most spectacular was the members of the UJCML travelling to China, by invitation, meeting with the Communist Party and witnessing the Cultural Revolution first-hand. Another delegation was sent to Albania, a less prestigious affair by far.[7] Finally, while these two delegations were conducting their investigations abroad, a third delegation had been established to investigate the political climate among the working class in France. One of these groups, led by Nicole Linhart (Robert Linhart’s wife), went to Vergèze to meet with workers from the Perrier factory and found that there were workers who supported both the Chinese and Albanian theses.[8]

When the three groups reconvened in the fall of 1967, the collective research of the delegations was presented at the “Conférence sur les enquêtes”. It was here that they formulated “La ligne d’établissement”. At a meeting in November 1967, the first of three primary waves of établissement began. Young students, lycéens, and intellectuals were incited to abandon their studies and careers to work and militate in factories. The aim of this practice was, in particular, to develop a militant Marxist–Leninist group within the CGT.

This was the first wave of établis, and there were roughly two more to follow. During the summer of ’68 and the participation in the events, many students were content to express their political engagement at the barricades in the Latin Quarter or supporting striking workers. After the events, a second wave of établis began and continued through the period of the GP.

A number of militant filmmakers, who had been working with factory workers on collective film projects, also became établis. One of the most well-known of these filmmakers turned factory workers was Jacques Kébadian, a member of La Gauche Prolaterienne as well as the militant film collective ARC (Atelier de recherche cinématographique.) Kébadian’s story as an établi and member of the GP is short but intense, ending with his arrest and eventual imprisonment. The following is an interview that took place at his apartment in Paris in late 2012.

PG: Can you tell me a bit about your life before ARC?

JK: My parents were born in Turkey, survivors of the genocide of 1915. They were Armenian. My father came to France to live with his brother, in 23, 24, he knew my mother from his village and he brought her over to marry her in the 1930s. Then I was born in '40. My mother, until the end of her life, spoke Turkish and Armenian with me. I always held this strange contradiction of on the one hand speaking the language of those who conducted the massacre, but in the Armenian circles it was frowned upon to not speak Armenian, like the militant nationalist Armenians.  Anyway, after the BAC I found a professor that I really liked who encouraged me to go to the cinématheque, to the theater to read a lot etc. His name was Gilles Sandier. Eventually I went to IDHEC in '63. And my first job as an editor was Bonne nuit les petits (Claude Laydu).

PG: Wasn’t the first film of ARC made in '63, La Grande greve des mineurs?

JK: No, but that was at IDHEC, it was the people who would eventually constitute ARC. Unfortunately afterwards we gave the images to the CGT and they made a film out of it, we weren’t able to keep up with what happened to the footage we shot.

PG: At CinéArchives there is a film that fits that description that is attributed to Louis Daquin.

JK: It's conceivable that they used our footage, but we never edited anything, we just shot a lot. The CGT might have edited it. (This film is not to be confused witht eh 1948 Grande Lutte des mineurs directed by Daquin with a scenario by Roger Vailland).

PG: For Michel Andrieu (also a founding member of ARC), he cites it as the first ARC film, for you this isn’t the case?

JK: Yes, it’s the first expression of the desire to do politics through film, to militate with the cinema.

PG: Just prior, had you made a connection between cinema and politics before IDHEC? Seeing films like Octobre à Paris, or the work of Paul Carpita?

JK: For us it was Resnais-Godard. I adored everything that Henri Agel defended: Grémillon, Bresson and in fact it was thanks to Bonne nuit les petits that I met Robert Bresson. Claude Laydu who was the star Diary of a country Priest was also the producer of Bonne nuit, and he asked me if I wanted to direct the next in the series of Bonne nuit. I told him that I would really want to work with Bresson and I ended up becoming the assistant director on Balthazar, Mouchette and Une femme Douce. In 1967 I made Trotsky right after working on Mouchette. And the IDHEC students told me that during the occupation of the school they showed the film over and over.

ARC began in '67 it existed in forms with Fédération des groupes d'études et de recherches institutionnelles (FGERI) and I knew Jean-Claude Pollack who was a militant and with whom I shared a similar oppositional view vis-à-vis the PCF. He brought us to La Borde where we did a little film workshop. Jean-Denis Bonan, another co-founder of ARC was there prior to us. ARC started there with this reflection about what it means to be a filmmaker today. We went to film the first demonstration against the war in Vietnam in Berlin. It was in December '67, then when we were editing the film there was the attack on Rudi Dutschke, and then in relation to that the first demonstration in support of Dutschke took place in Paris in March or April. I was a member of the Jeunesse communiste and then during the Algerian war I was a member of the PCF, I joined the JCR during the Algerian war while I was at IDEHC, I was part of the jeune resistance.

I met Bonan when he invited us to LaBorde, and we were the militants from the grand greve mineurs, the anti-imperialists from IDHEC. At first I was the only one who was really militant, others in the group were more sympathizers to the cause, anti-colonialists. Some were anarchists, some Maoists, some proto-situationists.

PG That didn’t create problems for the ability to work collectively?

JK: No because really we were glued together by cinema; and then politically we were all in agreement about the war in Vietnam. After May however we began to feel those kinds of tensions, even with Thorn who helped us a lot, but we began to feel his Stalinist tendencies and we were very anti-Stalinist, Ligne Rouge (Thorn's group) was Stalinist. Stalin was of course the great betrayal. Eventually I became Maoist in spite of the fact that they touted a Stalinist line. I thought that between Guevara and the Little Red Book there was something that worked well.

We shot some stuff at Flins Renault Factory and some of it was given to Thorn for his film (Oser lutter, oser vaincre). All the exteriors where the factory is surrounded by the CRS, we shot that.

PG: And Thorn was who for you?

JK: I guess we sort of met around the experience of the Etats generaux du cinema. After ARC I was part of Coup pour coup and Groupe Eugène Varlin. I also participated in a number of political currents and I was in a group with the Hoquengems. After, the JCR there was the Ligue, which didn’t really interest me. I was part of the Comité de base Censier and then eventually the Gauche prolétarienne and then my établissement.

PG: How did ARC come to an end?

JK: For about a year we, we had a relationship with Newsreel. It rested informal. We all just started to be more precise about our political affiliations and we realized that in that situation it was going to be more difficult to get along. Bonan went his way, and so ARC disintegrated. Then I was arrested and put into prison. And then there was Secours Rouge, then Overney and the GP fell apart. I was an établi for two months. And at the end of 1969 there was a demonstration, which ended with my arrest.

PG: You were a friend of Glucksman’s?

JK: Yes, one of the members of ARC married Glucksman. When I was in prison I read Solzhenitsyn and understood the change. At first I thought Glucksmann was brave to write about those things that didn’t work in the revolution. But I never became came a supporter of Sarkozy and I was never like Guy Patrick Sainderichin (from ARC and Cinélutte) who did a complete about face. I still like anything that rebels, my films still deal with those themes.

I was in prison for 2 months. Afterwards I was in a small splinter group that was related to the GP called Secours rouge. I didn’t join Cinélutte, I just wasn’t there. In Groupe Eugène Varlin there were some ARC folks, but it wasn’t a militant group and they were just friends helping me more than anything else. That was the really the last experience of a collective film that I had.

PG: What about your life as an établi?

JK: Well, early on I wasn't a fan of UJCML. During the events of May they said we were a petit-bourgeois movement. We weren’t at all on the same wavelength about 68. At that point we were much more Trotskyite, and following the March 22 Movement. Thorn however was already undertaking his établissement, but I think he was with the PCMLF or another Maoist group by that time. After May, there was the Trotskyite rebuilding, they wanted to create a party and that's where I lost interest. I felt there were other possibilities, which were happening at the time, like Secours rouge for example, and établissement.

PG: Is that when you joined the GP?

JK: Yes, more or less. I joined the GP because I wanted to continue the struggle in factories, with Renault. So I participated in actions at the factory gates with the GP, and then I entered the Valentine paint factory.

PG: Cinema at this point was for you…?

JK: At that point, I guest it's true that I stopped. It wasn't to be a filmmaker that I started at Valentine. To be an établi at that point, well, I guess I still believed that the struggle was still going strong enough that we could actually have a revolution.

PG: Was it your idea to enter the factory, or were you coerced by the GP somehow?

JK: No it was me.  But there was a thing where you're so deep in it that you can't really think about anything else. Except, when I was in prison where I had a moment that I was in this political group and they weren't ok that one of their militant be tried by the NRP. Then there was the death of Pierre Overney. And then I got out of it.

PG: But that's all after your établissement?

JK: Of course. I was in prison because I had undertaken political action during my établisssment, and when I was fired by Valentine I came back to the factory gates and demonstrated.

PG: How did you choose which factory to go to as an établi?

JK: We were told to find something near Gennevilliers.

PG: How do you get hired?

JK: Well we had to make fake work permits given that all we had were student backgrounds. It looked suspicious if you just showed up as a student looking for work. It was all very clandestine. And it didn't last long. There was a guy there who we thought was an old timer and it turned out he was union agent and he ferreted us out pretty quickly.

PG: But it was easy to get hired?

JK: Yes we had a whole network of people that could make papers for us. And we were also not really skilled workers, so the work was relatively easy to get.

PG: And what did you do once you were in?

JK: Sabotage mostly, to slow production down. Sometimes we mixed up the paints, like putting black paint in the white paint cans. But you know it didn't get very far.

PG: But when you first arrived, what was the idea? What did you want to accomplish?

JK: To mobilize the factory workers. To create and proletarian avant-garde based on Maoist principles. But I realized of course that we were dreaming a bit there. After, there was Gilles Tautin, then Pierre Overney. The factories were more and more closed. It became harder. The burial of Overeny…I don't know, it really forced us to reflect a bit about what we were doing.

PG: But the contact with the workers? Were there other établis at Valentine?

JK: Yeah I was with another guy.

PG: What I guess I'm trying to ask about is everyday life as an établi. Obviously there are those who stayed much longer, who effectively became factory workers. You can't work at a factory for 10 years and still think that it's just about the établissement. In fact, someone, an établi, just left Flins recently.

JK: Right so that is no longer necessarily about political action.

PG: There are those who said they felt like intellectuals dressed up as factory workers, but for some they become factory workers dressed up as intellectuals.

JK: Yes, I think this is sort of what happened with Thorn. But it wasn't my experience.

PG: But I suppose what I'm asking is, was there a difference between the working class life you found at the factory and the one that you imagined?

JK: Sometimes on Saturdays, I'd go play pool with them. But I didn't have time to really fraternize like I would have wanted to. We worked during the day and prepared the journal at night, we almost never slept. We were printing with a mimeograph machine. But I had very few personal relationships, I was fired so quickly. At Valentine the union was forbidden anyway, what they had was there own union, an in-house union.

PG: How'd they catch you?

JK: By that guy, their union watchdog. He realized I was a Maoist. After I got fired we came back to demonstrate but I was arrested pretty quickly, but I wasn't imprisoned for that. I continued to militate outside of the factory gates for a couple of months. Eventually we did an action with students, where we showed up with flags, etc. and when the boss came out with his thugs we had a bit battle, we were throwing Molotov cocktails. I did the same thing at Citroen. Sort of urban guerrilla techniques. Anyway, I was eventually caught. I was in the metro with my girlfriend, who was underage, and the cops stopped me because of that but then discovered that there was a warrant out for my arrest.

PG: There was a law regarding the activism…

JK: Le loi anti-casseur, I'm not sure if that was created after 68 or not. Anyway I spent two months in prison.

PG: You were still at the GP?

JK: Then after I returned to the Organisation des prisonniers politiques (OPP), which was the organization in support of political prisoners, Nicole and Robert Linhart were there.

PG: You went back to film right? You worked on Coup pour coup?

JK: It was the worst experience I had with film. It began as an incredible collective experience, with very deep research, something really interesting. And then Karmitz turned everyone against each other, appropriated the film as his own. He signed it. He signed the film as if he was the one who took all the risks, financial and otherwise.

PG: Was it a GP film?

JK: Sort of, it was supported by the GP, but the GP was pretty much finished at that point.

PG: Is that the end for you of political cells etc.?

JK: Yes, Benny Levy dissolved the group and became a rabbi.

 

 

Paul Grant

 



[1] Speech at the Chinese Communist Party’s National Conference on Propaganda Work, 12 March 1957.Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung, vol. 3. Peking, China: Foreign Languages Press, 1975. There is a certain oddity about the word établi, which sounds almost conservative even in its English translation as “settling down”. And yet as we will see, the practice was quite radical and far from the process of “settling” in nature.

[2] See M. Dressen, De l’amphi à l’établi: les étudiants Maoïstes à l’usine 1967–1989.Paris: Belin, 2000.

[3] See M. Ragon, Histoire de la littérature prolétarienne de langue française, revised and expanded edition. Paris: Le Livre de Poche, 2005.

[4] S. Weil, La condition ouvrière. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2002.

[5] “There is a tradition in France, even today, in engineering school where the students have to go work on the assembly line, or at least manual labour. But the next big experiment in the nineteenth century was in Russia, this movement towards the people en masse by the children of the aristocracy, many of whom were Russian students studying in Switzerland. It was called the Mouvement vers le peuple.” Interview with Dressen.

[6] This adherence to the school year indicated the student orientation of the group. It would be in breaking with this scholastic tendency that the dissolution of the UJC(ml) and the subsequent development of the Gauche prolétarienne, Vive le communisme, Ligne rouge, etc., would take place.

[7] See Bourseiller, Les Maoïstes, pp. 115–116. Bourseiller recounts how the male members of the delegation, upon arrival at the Albanian border, were forced to shave and the female members obliged to exchange their jeans for long dresses. Further, there is an episode in which Monchalbon, while attending a lecture by an Albanian Maoist, made a sketch in his notebook with a note that read, “Albania, theoretical desert”. Though he threw it away, the paper was found and brought before the French delegate by the police, who were infuriated by the insult. The French delegation was sent back to France. See also Kessel, Le mouvement “maoïste” en France, p. 270.

[8] See Hamon and Rotman, Génération, vol. 1, Chapter 10, pp. 329–366.