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Twenty years of La Fabrique

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Credit: Olivier Metzger

By Sonya Faure and Quentin Girard

Originally published by Libération. Translated from French by David Broder

Does Eric Hazan want to show us his ‘behind’? In an interview he gave to the anarchist fanzine Barricata in 2009, when a journalist asked him to ‘Tell us about your career’, Hazan replied: ‘I have shown off my behind a lot recently, in portrait pieces. I did it because I had to, but here, among comrades, I’d rather not, if that doesn’t bother you’.

You can draw whatever conclusions from this you like. Without doubt, he doesn’t totally consider us [Libération newspaper] among his comrades. But almost a decade later, the old editor still goes in for this little game. Now he will have to open up again. For his publishing house La Fabrique, a subversive and political outfit very much on the Left, is celebrating its twentieth anniversary.

Over two decades, Hazan and La Fabrique have published texts by Edward Said – the great humanist who inspired postcolonial studies – as well as the theorist of ‘liquid society’ Zygmunt Bauman, or the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire intellectual Daniel Bensaïd. So, too, Thierry Schaffauser’s Les Luttes des putes [‘Whores’ Struggles’], Zahra Ali’s Féminismes islamiques, and Grégoire Chamayou’s Théorie du drone. Then there’s Christine Delphy, Jacques Rancière, Frédéric Lordon and Alain Badiou. Robespierre, Blanqui and Walter Benjamin. And much by Hazan himself.

Roads less travelled

Twenty years ago, Hazan set himself two objectives. The first was only to publish ‘offensive’ texts that ‘did not stop at describing the existing order’ but ‘proposed ways of subverting it’ [1]. The second: not to owe a ‘penny of debt’ to the banks. He kept to both aims. Running the publisher as a bonus pater familias (two employees and an intern, putting out 10 to 12 books every year) allowed him to keep a totally independent publisher going. As for subversion, there is plenty of that. It was Hazan who published the Invisible Committee’s 2007 book The Coming Insurrection. This later became ‘incriminating evidence’ in the Tarnac trial, which recently collapsed. And it was also Hazan who published Houria Bouteldja’s firebrand Les Blancs, les Juifs et nous in 2016 – a work that divided even La Fabrique’s longstanding fellow-travellers.

As soon as I ring at the door of the little block on the old street of working-class Paris where the La Fabrique office nestles, Hazan calls me by the familiar ‘tu’. ‘Come on in! It’s at the bottom of the garden, at the foot of the staircase’. He is friendly and replies politely to my questions, though without extending himself too much. It is difficult to set him off on side-alleys. We quickly see the figures of speech he prefers to use, repeating them over and over. For instance, when he talks about the managers of capitalism, ‘these young types with thin lips and flannel suits’. He constantly invokes ‘the truth’ – ‘that’s true’, ‘that’s more or less true’ – and rather than ‘yes’, he replies ‘for certain’.

For certain, he knows his weak spots and pre-empts questions that haven’t been asked: ‘I have prepared my succession, at the head of the publisher’, he insists right away. Which is doubtless only almost true ‘Few small publishers have managed to last without their founder’, Jean Morisot – one of La Fabrique’s two employees – acknowledges. ‘But that’s his aim. He has done everything he needed to’.

Hazan can also equivocate: ‘Ah! Did I really write that Libération only talks about books that don’t risk offending its shareholders? You’re right, that’s unfair’. It’s true: playing the card of the small publisher, misunderstood and badly treated by the powerful, doesn’t work anymore now that Le Monde devotes its pages to texts by the Invisible Committee and Libération regularly publishes his columns. Nor is it easy to identify the image of the author of Chronique de la guerre civile (La Fabrique, 2004), a pamphleteer who seems foreign to doubt and modesty, and the frail body of this man, with his wrinkled but boyish face. It’s hard to pin down this Hazan.

The beginning of the Tarnac affair

It is not hard to imagine the headaches that the criminal police ran into after they had the brainwave of interrogating Hazan. This took place in April 2009, six months after the beginning of the Tarnac affair, and still a few years before the true terrorist attacks began. Back then, the state could still dream that it had a sole enemy within, coming from the ultra-Left [sic]. Heard as a witness for some three hours, he was criticised for publishing the anarcho-poetic-revolutionary pamphlet The Coming Insurrection, and for not wanting to reveal who its authors were (they stayed hidden behind the pseudonym ‘The Invisible Committee’). He still smiles at the marketing coup he was handed on a plate by then-Interior Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie, allowing this text to come out of its previously anonymous condition and become La Fabrique’s biggest-ever seller. More than 80,000 copies were sold. Almost an annual windfall. After that, the story continued with To Our Friends and Maintenant. The editor says he publishes the Invisible Committee’s texts on trust, almost without retouching them at all. He himself tried his hand at seditious prose with his Premières Mesures révolutionnaires (2013), a draft insurrectionary programme whose political line and style recalled that of his comrades.

Hazan has a passion for revolution. It is expressed by his choice of authors, by the pseudonym he adopts for texts he translates (‘Michel Luxembourg’, for Louise and Rosa) and by his love of the nineteenth century, the ‘century of barricades’. That is also why he has such deep love for the cobblestones of Paris and the ’70 sunlit days of the Commune’. He has set himself within this lineage. In his 2002 work The Invention of Paris (published by Seuil), a learned journey through the French capital which was also his first book (aged 66), he said that the worst moment of his life was ‘the death of Delescluse on the barricade at Château-d’Eau’ – on 25 May 1871… Might he even wish to meet the same tragic, romantic end himself? In any case, he believes that an eruption remains possible: as he wrote in l’Invention de Paris, ‘Those who think that the game is already over in Paris, those who say they have never seen an explosion in a museum, those who toil each day to restore the façade of the old republican barracks, should reflect on the twists and turns in Paris’s greatness, which constantly surprised their predecessors over the past centuries: that is to say, Paris’s power of rupture’. As for the many current protests, from the railworkers’ strike to the ‘free commune of Tolbiac campus’, he does not believe ‘in the convergence of struggles. But a movement like the one underway at the moment creates links, drives encounters, brings out ideas, produces an anger – all elements that are indeed important and lasting’.

‘I didn’t make the best of it’

Hazan is 81, which is not all that old given all the lives that he has lived. His grandfather was a Cairo bookseller, his father founded two publishers, in which his mother – born in Palestine, and left stateless – also worked. His parents, ‘assimilated, bourgeois, Jews’ formed an inseparable couple. Fernand Hazan founded Editions de Cluny before World War II. When war broke out, the family fled for Marseille in unoccupied France. Without doubt, it was sweets that saved Eric Hazan’s life: his father had the ingenious idea of setting up a factory making sweets out of Guinea honey. A success. He took in enough money to be able to buy a house in Antibes, under Italian occupation, where the family fled when the Germans occupied the territory previously known as the ‘Free Zone’. As Hazan noted in the programme dedicate to him on France Culture in March, A voix nue, ‘Raul Hilberg showed clearly in his Destruction of the European Jews that the Jews who escaped were the rich ones’.

In Antibes the Hazans ate olives from the garden and dried figs. They lived a semi-hidden and near-autarchic existence. ‘With the war, I had quite a pleasant childhood’, Hazan comments. ‘I did not go to school, I never missed out on anything. I was hidden, yes. But for a kid it was great fun. I played cops and robbers. My parents did not have a bad time of things. I do not remember ever being afraid’.

Returning to Paris, he came back to the Montaigne high school and then Janson-de-Sailly in the 16th arrondissement. ‘Not having been to school, I knew twice as much as everyone else. They had not managed to stuff my mind. I am a pure result of the Jacotot method that Rancière described in his Ignorant Schoolmaster. He read a lot, and today he particularly remembers La Chartreuse de Parme. ‘I have remained a Stendahlian. A bad Frenchman: he had no love for France, or Paris, and found people arrogant and fundamentally so repressed that they did not manage to free their hearts. He was really a good guy’.

After the war, his father founded a new publisher, Editions Hazan, devoted to art books. He hung around with Matisse and Picasso but pushed his son to study medicine. ‘I wanted to do history at the École Normale Supérieure like my mates Marc Augé and Jean-Pierre Changeux’. Hazan became a surgeon specialising in child cardiology. ‘It’s a fine job but at the same time it’s one that makes you a bit of a cretin. Yesterday’s patient, tomorrow’s patient… the wheel never stops whirring in your head. I didn’t make the best of the time I grew up in. I could have gone along to Deleuze’s course, I could have met Foucault – his brother did his internship with me. But all that completely passed me by’.

But what did not pass him by was the activism of that period. While his parents were dyed-in-the-wool readers of Le Monde, his high-school mates helped him discover communism. He then quit the Communist Party in 1956, and never again took a party card. At the beginning of the 1970s he was one of the first doctors to openly admit on TV that he had carried out illegal abortion. ‘The Loi Veil [1975 law decriminalising abortion] is ours!’ he says today, without blinking. ‘When the law is defied, the state can either jail those who disobey or change the law itself’. During the Algerian War he also helped the FLN. ‘People came to my place with a suitcase and counted out the notes. The next morning someone else came to my place, we counted the notes again, and they went off with the suitcase’. He then headed to Lebanon to support the ‘Palestinian-progressive’ coalition. The question of the Palestinians’ fate is still central for Hazan and La Fabrique’s publications. ‘We helped make public what was going on there, what the media did not talk about, even if it meant that we lost money’, he remarks. Like Edward Said he backs the establishment of a single state, and, in awaiting that outcome, BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) against Israel. ‘Israel’s great wealth is not its oranges but its culture’, he argues. ‘This is a fundamental propaganda weapon’.

Despite Hazan’s origins, his positions on Israel-Palestine regularly earn him accusations of anti-Semitism. He finds humour in this: ‘This always made me laugh. It never troubled or bothered me’. We meet a few days after the murder of Mireille Knoll [an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor murdered in March 2018], as discussion rages on the rise of anti-Jewish attacks in France. He shrugs his shoulders; this is not a subject that interests him. ‘No one around me was all that worked up about it. Yes, they were moved by the murder of a respectable old lady. But nothing more than that’. He says this almost glibly. He is very aware, however, that there is an element of provocation in what he is saying. As David Dufresne impeccably noted in his book Tarnac, magasin général (Calmann-Lévy, 2012), ‘The full sense of the man [Hazan] is in the moments he leaves hanging; in what goes unstated, or perhaps is not there at all, in his silences; in the points left hanging that should, or perhaps should not be translated’.

In 1983 Hazan gave up medicine and took over the bookshop left to him by his father after his death: ‘It was as if General de Gaulle had opened up a haberdashery in Colombey [De Gaulle’s place of retirement]!’ ‘I became increasingly aware that I could not keep on like that forever. I still had twenty-five years left in medicine, my marriage was not going very well’, Hazan tries to recall, ‘And there was this publisher… It was not a vocation, but rather more of a parachute’. He scraped by and ended up selling it to Hachette. The marriage went badly, and the former doctor slammed the door. He wanted to throw himself into a ‘truly political’ publishing house.

It is easy for readers to identify La Fabrique’s books, with their titles in Rockwell font on monochrome covers. And so, too, for journalists, to the point that they are increasingly read and commented on, despite what are ultimately rather modest sales. And sometimes they spark sharp debates. The historian Enzo Traverso made up part of the small group of intellectuals, together with Sophie Wahnich, Olivier Le Cour Grandmaison and Alain Brossat, who Eric Hazan brought together to discuss the manuscripts. ‘A group of friends, in the political and intellectual sense of the term’, recalls the Cornell professor Traverso. But he, like so many others, ended up in a bust-up with Hazan. ‘We had a great time and did good work’, Traverso remembers. ‘The project was clear, and open: no political, or still less party-political boundaries. At the end of the 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the deep ideological crisis of the Left, a space opened up that publishers had long left deserted. The task, then, was to bring new ideas to the young generation on the radical Left’.

He only publishes friends

As usual, Hazan surrounds himself with youth, with the collective – ‘even if the collective always ends up sparking a bit more debate than he’d have wanted’, smiles the historian Wahnich, who praises Hazan’s intuition and his ability to unearth innovative thinking. For Traverso, ‘Eric is a real force but he can be abrupt. He doesn’t mix his words or take precautions. That goes hand in hand with the courage and the strength of his convictions’. For Wahnich, ‘He is one of those people who cannot bear things not being done as they should, and that is a strength of his which I admire’. For the publisher Nicolas Norrito, four decades Hazan’s junior, ‘he is an elegant man at every level. I have great respect, great esteem, for a person who was clearly one of the figures who inspired us when we launched [radical-Left publisher] Libertalia.

Enzo Traverso began to distance himself from Hazan in 2000, with the publication of Norman Finkelstein’s Holocaust Industry, a book which sought to demonstrate the culture industries’ reification of the Jewish genocide and the political instrumentalisation of this history by Israel and the US Jewish community. For Traverso, ‘It posed apt questions, but some formulations were liable to being badly misinterpreted’. Indeed, the book, which was accused of feeding anti-Semitism, caused a scandal. Wahnich, an expert on the French Revolution, quit the collective in 2006 with the publication of La République mise à nu par son immigration [‘The Republic laid bare by its immigrants’], a collective work edited by the postcolonialism expert and sociologist Nacira Guénif: ‘All my work around the Revolution is about valorising the universal. This book dismissed the very idea of the Republic without even debating it, which for me is politically incoherent’.

More recently came Houria Bouteldja’s book les Blancs, les Juifs et nous. Vers une politique de l’amour révolutionnaire. More than 5,000 copies were sold, and it sparked discussion far and wide, not least because it was accused of having an identitarian thrust that essentialised whites, Jews and gays. ‘There was an outpouring of hatred, though three-quarters of these people had not read it’, Hazan warns. ‘Houria is eloquent, intelligent, beautiful, a woman and an Arab. A lot of people cannot stand that kind of figure’. For Norrito ‘if sometimes one might disagree on [Hazan’s] Robespierrian vision of the Revolution or rather authoritarian approach to politics, the real point of ideological friction is clearly the question of the Indigènes de la République [i.e. Bouteldja’s decolonial, anti-racist party]’, Nicolas Norrito observes. ‘Nothing could possibly have made us publish Houria Bouteldja’s text, which sparked enormous bust-ups in that milieu’.

At La Fabrique, Hazan only publishes friends. ‘Houria Bouteldja is a partner in struggle’, he continues. ‘I am not in full agreement with all of the Indigènes de la République’s political analysis, but who should we thank for the fact that today we can talk about “the Whites”? Houria succeeded in explaining that “whiteness” is not a skin colour but having privilege. It is right, fruitful, to say that in France there is a neo-colonial situation’. Jean Morisot softens the tones: ‘Our role is to represent all tendencies, sometimes with people who do not agree with one another. Take a look at the La Fabrique catalogue; if you put all the authors in the same room and demand that they find an agreement, then you’d end up with blood on the floor’.

Half-six in the evening in the calm little courtyard. One would not even notice the afternoon that has passed by. Eric Hazan lets us know that it is time to stop. He has to go to the presentation of a book at a bookshop. A defender of publishing, he makes a big deal of bookshops and devotes a lot of time to them. And they reward him handsomely for it. This evening there does not seem likely to be any dispute, simply a discussion on Proust, Baudelaire and Nerval. But he heads there with just as much appetite. The publisher still has a little smile as the time comes to say goodbye. Ultimately, all this is great fun for Eric Hazan.

 [1] As he explains in Pour aboutir à un livre (La Fabrique, 2016).