Blog post

The Critique of the School in Post-’68 French Thought (2): Interview with Anne QuerrienUntitled

In this extensive interview, Anne Querrien discusses the Guattarian research group CERFI and her research into the history of mutual education in France.

Jun Fujita Hirose, Yoshiyuki Sato15 November 2022

The Critique of the School in Post-’68 French Thought (2):  Interview with Anne QuerrienUntitled

This interview, conducted by Jun Fujita Hirose and Yoshiyuki Sato, was originally published on the Laboratoire d’analyse critique des modernités Blog.

This is an interview with Anne Querrien on the ‘critique of the school in post-’68 French thought’. In 1976, Querrien published for an issue of Recherches, a journal published by the Guattarian research group CERFI, ‘L’école mutuelle, une pédagogie trop efficace?’, with the aim of drawing attention to the history of mutual education in French history. In this interview, she recounts in detail the history of the mutual school as well as that of CERFI.

The CERFI (Centre d’Études, de Recherches et de Formation Institutionnelles) was a group of people who actually knew each other before 1968. The core, around Guattari during the Algerian war and its aftermath, were people who were older than me. Guattari and Fourquet were between five and fifteen years older. These people had fought against the Algerian war, in connection with the Algerians, not like the French Communist Party, which simply protected young people who didn’t want to do military service, or who fled from it. The PCF did not work at all with the Algerians, because the party wanted to remain within a national framework. So, there was a left-wing opposition to the Communist Party which included Trotskyists for the most part. They published a newspaper called La Voix communiste, which did not last long, 1960 to 1965, but criticised the French Communist Party, the USSR, etc. and supported the Algerians fighting for their independence. After the end of the Algerian war in 1962, the problem for the militants who had fought against the Algerian war was what to do next. Some of them tried to go to Algeria to participate in the construction of a new Algeria, but very quickly returned to France. The main idea among the Trotskyists, as among the Maoists, was to support a movement abroad which was particularly striking in world revolutionary activity. So, we had people who got involved with Vietnam and then China, and then others with Cuba or Latin America. Guattari proposed something else, to make an institutional and revolutionary critique of all the domains of everyday life in France and abroad, in psychiatry, in general medicine, in pedagogy, in cinema, so in a lot of domains, and we created a review called Recherches, so there was a sort of clash between two currents, the one which followed Guattari on the one hand, and the Trotskyists, the PSU (Parti Socialiste Unifié) or the people close to the Communist Party on the other. This clash occurred in particular within the UNEF (Union Nationale des Étudiants de France), the student union, and in particular within the Mutuelle Nationale des Étudiants de France, the students’ health organisation. This mutuelle had asked the La Borde clinic and Guattari to work on problems of student mental health. The first issue of Recherches was published at the beginning of ’66, because the break between the two currents of the communist left took place in November ’65. You can find all the issues of Recherches on the internet. And, so, a profusion of critical groups developed. The aim was to bring our ideas to life, possibly by carrying out paid studies. So, in 1967, we filed the CERFI statutes with the prefecture, which were copied very largely from those of an association created by Michel Rocard to advise local authorities.

In 1966, the French government had the brilliant idea, as there were not enough outlets for the steel industry, to call for tenders to build industrialised psychiatric hospitals. They would have had to invent madmen to fill them. So, the people around La Borde, i.e. Oury, Guattari and other psychiatrists, wrote a collective letter to the ministry saying that psychiatric methods had changed, and that there was no longer any need for all these hospitals. The ministry sent a mission to La Borde to see how it was possible to treat 2,000 people with only 120 beds, whereas until then 2,000 beds had been needed. The doctors who carried out this study said to Guattari: ‘With the brilliant ideas you have, you should set up a research bureau like we’ve done,’ which is what became the CERFI. In ’68, things fell into a bit of a slumber, I was involved with the 22 March movement at Nanterre and I actually wrote to Félix Guattari: ‘For me things are happening at Nanterre, so for the moment I’m not doing anything for CERFI.’

What this has to do with the theme of the school is that in France at least, perhaps not at all in other countries, but in France since the Third Republic, since Jules Ferry, there has been a kind of political belief that the school is the means of creating equality between citizens. I don’t think that exists in other countries. There is a real movement to try to transform university institutions in the direction of more equality. I myself was a very good student, because I worked on my own and I spent a lot of time in lycée corridors, especially in the last years, explaining to my classmates what they didn’t understand from the teachers. It was a facilitating role that could be found in the history of the mutual school in the nineteenth century. A small anecdotal experience had a very important role for me, I went to the United Kingdom as is traditional, to my English pen pal’s home, actually in Jersey. It was what they call a ‘public school’, the best schools. There, although I was three years younger than the others in my class, I was much better than them in maths, but in gym, on the other hand, I was not very good. In gymnastics classes in France, when you’re not very good, for example, in high jumps, you’re eliminated, you have to wait around for the best person to jump, but, in Jersey, the teacher did the opposite, and sent people who had jumped well to do something else, to play ball alongside. Then she made me start again, and got me to jump 30 centimetres more than I had before, and I finally said to myself: ‘When you insist a little, you can.’

In the UNEF, through our mutual insurance company, I had had a quite incredible experience. In France, students committed suicide more than other categories of the population, and students who are children of farmers actually had a rate five times more than other students. At that time, in 1962, the UNEF decided, as there were only 500 students who were sons or daughters of farmers, to carry out a full-scale psycho-sociological survey to try to understand what was happening. As Rennes in Brittany had the most students who were children of farmers, they set up a working group there which drew up questionnaires every month for the working groups in other towns. The survey was about the daily life of the students, ‘what they needed, how they could do sport, etc., etc.’, and at the end of the year there were no students from a farming background who committed suicide, and the following year neither. That was in 1964 or so, and it triggered a passion for what was called ‘action research’. In Rennes, an institution was created and still exists, called the Office Social et Culturel de Rennes, which is an association to assist people from the countryside in the city. This office was created following this survey, with some of these students as facilitators. The friend who led this research was called Xavier Joseph, but, unfortunately, he had a heart disease contracted during his military service in Algeria, and he died in 1968.

I started to work professionally with Xavier in an institute that specialised in adult education. The director of this institute, Bertrand Schwartz, was a graduate of the Polytechnique and in the middle of his career he had been appointed director of the École des Mines at Nancy. He created something that has now been copied in all engineering schools, a year of work experience where the student is a rank-and-file worker in their chosen discipline. Bertrand Schwartz, foreseeing the coming closure of the Lorraine steel industry, had built up a whole system of permanent training to organise the reconversion of the miners and steelworkers. The evolution of the production system showed that it was no longer possible to stay in the same job all one’s life, nor even in an identical job. New skills had to be acquired to keep up with the movement of technology. This meant an increase in wages, which was not to the liking of company managers. Bertrand Schwartz planned a training course in ‘French expression’ designed to give workers the means to express themselves better, and therefore to dialogue with the bosses. The latter did not want this; they wanted the training to be limited to professional skills, even though it was these that were being called into question by new developments, since it was not known what skills would be required in the future. Strangely enough, the unions did not support Bertrand Schwartz in these proposals, as they felt it was not up to the workers to prepare themselves for changes that the bosses wanted.

My first job was to assist Xavier Joseph at the Institut National pour la Formation des Adultes. Our mission was to create a journal which would serve as a link between the social sciences, practice on the ground, and the visions of training of the respective social partners, i.e. the bosses and the workers’ unions, which was very difficult because the Confédération Générale du Travail was extremely backward-looking in this area. The Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail, on the other hand, was very open. And Force Ouvrière had a leader who was close to the CFDT in his ideas, but did not want to cooperate for ideological reasons, as the CFDT was of Christian origin. I worked in this institute for three or four years and reported in the journal Éducation Permanente on a whole series of experiences in adult training which involved mutual learning. For example, EDF, the big electricity company, had decided to have its workers carry out repairs under voltage without cutting off the power. This required the use of glass instruments, which insulate the workers’ hands. The training for this work used video, which was still very new in France. The trainers had the teams of workers filmed by their comrades; one team filmed what the other was doing and they switched afterwards, commenting on each other, it was really very positive.

During that time, CERFI, the research cooperative we had created with Félix Guattari and a few friends, was in its infancy, because we didn’t have study contracts, so I was obliged to earn a living. After May ’68, many friends could no longer bear to live in a normal working environment and joined the CERFI project of an independent study centre. I was supposedly the general secretary of CERFI; I had to go once a week to collect the post, and one day, I met a woman there who had the issue of the journal Recherches we had produced following the survey of psychiatric hospitals with less than 100 beds, and she said to me: ‘My boss has read this and he would like to see you.’ So we met the person in charge of urban research who was in the process of setting up a research department at the ministry of public works. He said to us: ‘There is a sentence here on page 182: “The state builds facilities which respond to the previous period, because it obeys the demands of the trade unions etc., instead of dealing with professional technical political innovation in the field.” Would you be willing to develop this idea, if we give you money?’ That’s how we started. To test us, the first contract was to design psychiatric facilities in accordance with the doctrine of the sector in the new town of Évry, and then immediately afterwards there was a big call for tenders from all the young research groups that had appeared since 1968. The person in charge of research at the ministry told us to write down freely how we conceived research on urban problems. The results of the call for tenders were very varied, as each group was entitled to express its own ideas. There wasn’t much unity, it was still leftist and urban, but there were classical Communists, statisticians, economists. Félix Guattari and I wrote a text saying that in order to produce collective facilities, we needed institutional promoters of collective facilities, that is to say, bringing together the different dimensions of a facility, and the points of view of the different people involved in the life of this facility, with a work of analysis, and then of synthesis in a proposal for an experimental facility. Our institutional promoter of collective facilities was to define a future facility, but if there was no order for this, we had to do a genealogy of collective facilities, that is to say, a history in which we questioned the bifurcations and conflicts in the conceptions of past facilities. So, we proposed this as research to be financed, and we did the genealogy of collective facilities, which gave rise to an issue of Recherches on facilities and the state. I chose to work on the school, since the question of the school and its limits had always been with me. I immersed myself in the archives and in old books in the manner of Foucault, and I discovered the controversy over mutual schools in nineteenth-century pamphlets. What had struck Foucault was the military and disciplinary aspect, whereas in the manner of Guattari, I looked for lines of flight.

Something I find really scandalous among school specialists is that they talk about school as a teacher-student relationship, with student in the singular, whereas school became a bit more effective in the seventeenth century with the invention of the class, the class group. Recently, a rather sympathetic school reformer, Meirieu, again referred to the teacher-student relationship in the singular, and proposed putting the student at the centre of the pedagogical relationship. This cannot work. The first moment of the class group was in the seventeenth century with Jean-Baptiste de La Salle. In 1816, the mutual school appeared, as a way of animating the class. This was in 1816, just after the Empire, when the royalists came back to power. Among these royalists, there were modern industrialists and, in particular, François Guizot who was to be prime minister under Louis Philippe. And so these people created a foundation, the Société pour l’Amélioration de l’Instruction Élementaire, where they brainstormed together on school reform. They discovered the English mutual method, which consisted of having the children learn from the best ones; the class was divided into small groups and the teacher organised the work of the groups. We do not have many archives and documents, we are reduced to making assumptions: people who wanted to be teachers, who had the desire to teach, and were not members of the Frères des Écoles Chrétiennes, would take up this mutual school in material conditions which were not those which Guizot and the Société pour l’Amélioration de l’Instruction Élementaire had wanted. In the mutual school model, it was a question of large masses of pupils, 400 of them, moving around at the command of whistles; there was an important military aspect. But the basic idea was that the better teach the less good, rather than forcing these to watch the better ones succeed. According to some records, Proudhon and other founders of French socialism had gone through the mutual school. Similarly, the engineer who built the railway in the Côtes-d’Armor, his home department, found appropriate technical solutions without obeying Parisian standards; he had gone to the mutual school. So did my grandfathers.

From the few documents available, we can see that the philosophy of the mutual school was not selection or competition, but mutual aid. The problem with left- or right-wing schools is not ideology; making children recite ‘Lenin is a great man’ is as stupid as making them recite ‘God is good’, if you have to recite things simply by rote. What’s important is to have movement, not to have a desk and a chair screwed to the floor, like with the Lasallians, where there was very little mobility. When students teach others, like in the mutual school, they learn better themselves. That’s what bothered the bosses in the nineteenth century: that in this mutual school students learnt too much in too little time, it formed people who had other possibilities than those who had remained wisely at their desks like in the schools of the Frères des Écoles Chrétiennes.

Do you think that a sort of line of flight in the Guattarian sense corresponded to this mutual school in relation to the Lasallian school?

Yes, this fluid idea was created on the ground, it was not in the idea of the people who set up this school. Guizot was a Protestant and therefore against the Frères des Écoles Chrétiennes. But when he became a minister, seeing that the mutual schools in the provinces were criticised by the Church and the employers, he decreed that the worthwhile school was the school of the Frères des Écoles Chrétiennes, and he created the Écoles Normales d’Instituteurs, where the method taught was that of the Lasallians. The Frères des Écoles Chrétiennes were exempt from this training, since they received the training of their order. With Jules Ferry, the Lasallians lost this privilege, but their method became the compulsory method for all.

Why was this line of flight crushed by another system, the Lasallian system?

The Lasallian system already existed, and had taught a significant part of the population. Their system was quite close in spirit to the Jesuit system through which many members of the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy of the time had passed. When, under Napoleon III in 1860, Victor Duruy, the minister of education, was not sure what was happening on the ground and sent inspectors to primary schools, he invited rural teachers to take part in an essay competition on the subject of ‘The rural school from the triple point of view of the premises, the pupils and the teacher’. This competition was obviously judged by people from the bourgeoisie or by inspectors, who analysed what the teachers had to say with reference to secondary education. So primary education was seen by the bourgeoisie, by the few civil servants of the time, as a preparation for secondary education, whereas it had its own autonomy. The teachers spoke of a ‘school of the people’. They made a bilingual school for children who spoke regional languages at home. They transgressed the orders of the ministry, they improvised their methods, and still referred to the mutual school. This creativity was crushed from the moment when to become a teacher it was necessary to go through the École Normale d’Instituteurs. Here teachers learned for three years the method invented by the Lasallians, then they did their military service and afterwards they were released in the countryside. A young person from a rural area who becomes a teacher had a monthly income which does not make him a bourgeois but is still above the population. At the time of Jules Ferry, they created school gardens and showed the local population that they could grow other vegetables than what they were doing, they tried by their example to improve daily life. At that time, the teacher, the priest, the highway engineer and the doctor were the four local notables along with the mayor. The denunciation of the mutual school as learning too much too quickly began in 1823 or 1824. There are plenty of lampoons in the Bibliothèque Nationale, saying that the mutual school would train bureaucrats, lazy people, who would no longer want to be workers.

Was the idea of the mutual system self-management among the students?

No, because for the mutual system to work well, you need the right school material, you need the attention of the teacher who sorts out groups, there’s a lot of organisational work, but the pedagogical work is multiplied by the fact that the pupils who have understood a little better explain to the others, especially in maths. This is not self-management by the students. Michel Conan, who was in charge of urban research at the ministry of public works, organised a seminar at a winter sports site where each person who was doing research that interested him was paired with someone else who was responsible for criticising his research. So, Jacques Rancière criticised my mutual school with his Jacotot. Rancière was doing research on proletarian, popular expression. He discovered Jacotot in the midst of these popular writings. Jacotot chose Fénelon’s Télémaque, which was available in a bilingual edition. His Dutch students were encouraged to learn French from the translation by teaching each other. Télémaque was good material for this learning. Jacotot is not the absence of a master or the ‘ignorant schoolmaster’, as Rancière claims. The master plays an apparently weak organising role, but it is he who has chosen good material for learning...

[book-strip index="1" style="display"]

In order to organise the mutual system, there has to be a system of supervision, a system of normalisation, etc.?

There are several ways of organising the mutual system. It can be with different groups for each discipline, that was the basic idea, that is to say that not everyone is best in maths, best in French, best in this, so the groups are changed according to the disciplines, with all the work of organising the space of the class-group into small groups; some will be monitors, those who have been identified as the best and will be assigned to groups. In the version of the mutual school that we can say is a bit degenerate, the one my grandfather experienced, the monitors were pupils from the class above who had an hour in the morning to prepare with the teacher to organise the class for the rest of the day. This organisation, even if it was not as fluid or as elusive as the initial idea of a mutual school, actually made it possible to produce generations of people in the school of the Third Republic, which produced both good pupils from working-class backgrounds, what is known as republican elitism, but also a mass of people who learned to live together. With decolonisation and immigration, a hierarchy of people developed in the suburbs according to their origin. In this new context, the school learned to resign itself to inequalities.

You said in your book that ‘the family is now only the local agent of the state’. Does that mean that the school is the main agent in relation to the family?

In the texts of the great reformers, the people are useless unless they are trained as workers or soldiers, they have bad morals, they must be civilised and the school is thought of as an instrument of civilisation. By the time of Jules Ferry, this work of civilisation had already begun. Jules Ferry noted that there were children in families who already practised what the school wanted, and others whose families had absolutely nothing in common with what the school wanted to produce. So, it was necessary to attract children from bourgeois or petty-bourgeois families into public education by building very nice schools, and the pupils who were good because of their families would drive the pupils who were bad because of their environment. If this architectural programme had been done for the mutual school, it would have been very effective. But in this broad and dynamic architecture, which subsequent studies have shown to be capable of accommodating new forms of education, Jules Ferry took over the rules of total immobility of children from the Lasallians.

In the texts that established the school, the family had to be the relay of the state in relation to the children. If children have a family that is incapable of acting as a relay for the state, what will become of them is unknown, their future can’t be ensured. That is still completely relevant today: parents who are take responsibility for the parents’ association have their children in the best classes. We wanted to take care of the classes where there were no parents who were members of the parents’ association. So, I did a science and technology class where the main teacher was the gym teacher, not the literature or maths teacher, and a class where there wasn’t a child in a normal family situation, they were all living in care homes without their parents. These children all had about an hour’s transport to come to the college, while their peers in the ‘good classes’ had only ten minutes. Their parents had greater psychological and social problems than the parents of the ‘good class’ students. In spite of these differences, the cultural level in terms of ability to speak French is now quite homogeneous and equal, but these people, as soon as they are asked to write, even on their Facebook, it’s full of spelling mistakes and therefore they cannot find a stable job, because in France, if you make spelling mistakes, your future at school and in employment is compromised.

The school disseminates a model of the good family, and would like to disseminate this model to those who do not share it. This ‘delinquency’ is due to material, cultural and professional conditions which mean that the model of the good family does not work, on the contrary, and that, at present, inequalities are increasing rather than decreasing. This is very much linked, not just to the school, but to a whole multidimensional system in which the school plays its role. It’s the opposite of the belief that is quite widespread in public discourse in France, that the school reduces inequalities; it absolutely cannot do so, if at the same time we don’t deal with territorial inequalities, transport problems, housing problems, etc. For example, if there are six people in a room that is half the size of this one, they don’t have the same conditions for studying as those who have their own room. I remember that at the beginning of my professional life I had a friend who was a teacher at the École Normale d’Instituteurs. They had received a survey from the ministry, it was called ‘The GAMIN plan’, a guide for the improvement of some aspect or other of school life and in which any child who didn’t have his own room was said to be abnormal. They realised that this meant 75% of French children. Madame Dolto had been involved in its production and given speeches on the good life for a child, which did not correspond at all to the living conditions of the majority, not to mention immigrants and refugees.

To understand the situation of the school you also have to see the family situation, and to understand the family situation you have to understand the situation of the school, so it’s a bit reciprocal...

Yes, if you want to change things in the school, when you are in a deprived suburb, you have to manage to speak to the families. It happened to someone I know, someone who used the Freinet method; she was assigned to a very deprived area near Orly airport, so she arrived to prepare her office for the start of the school year and then there were three gentlemen who arrived with huge dogs, and when they talked to her they said they would tell the other parents that the new head teacher was nice, whereas she had been afraid at first, because they were verbally very aggressive. It’s true that it’s not easy to teach in a poor suburb.

A map of schools was done for the lycées in the Paris area, showing the choices of the pupils for the schools which are in great demand. We can see that the most popular lycées are the old Jesuit schools founded in the seventeenth century, because people know them, they know that the Lycée Henri IV exists, etc., including in the Hauts-de-Seine, for example, the Lycée Lakanal, which is within the walls of a former Jesuit college, and very much in demand by parents but also by teachers, and therefore you need a good many seniority points and good inspections to be able to teach at Lakanal. Whereas to go to the Bourg-la-Reine secondary school, which was created later, you need much less. Another element of the vicious circle: I had a colleague who had his children at Henri IV and who proposed himself as president of the parents’ association. He was someone of Jewish and communist origin, a very good student, an economist, etc., with a tremendous desire for integration and assimilation. So, he arrived as a parent at Henri IV, one of the most highly rated lycées, and he became president of the parents’ association, and therefore representative of the parents’ association on the school’s board. He has a lot of connections through his work with companies, he is able to find internships for lycée students which makes a big difference with lycées where parents have no connections. For example, during a survey we found that in a provincial town there were three lycées, one Catholic and two public, and the pupils of the public vocational lycée, who most needed work placements, were not able to get placements, whereas the pupils of the Catholic lycée and the public lycée were able to get placements simply because the company managers only knew the lycées where they had been pupils.

The problem with educational research is that there is a lot of research that tells you what I’m saying, experiments that try to change things at the local level, you can only do it at the local level, but the ministry practically ignores all this. The whole institutional structure is designed not to prevent experiments, but to keep them on the sidelines. As soon as the ministry hears about something, it does a little trick to prevent it. That’s one of the big problems with this centralised administration.

On the subject of social inequality, what did you think at the time of the books by Bourdieu and Passeron, and those by Baudelot and Establet?

I participated in a small working group with Baudelot and Establet on the school a long time ago...

When was this?

It was about the time I was writing my book, in the 1970s. It was published in 1976, and written before that, in 1973. I had really enjoyed the little book L’école primaire divise... because what they were explaining was that in this historical constitution of the school, the bourgeois benefited from primary classes in the lycées and before the lycées in the Jesuit colleges, and so the bourgeois children did all their schooling from primary onwards in the lycée, and at secondary level the children from the communal schools who hadn’t had the same discipline were cordially despised by the teachers and by their classmates and so on... Instead of everyone going to the primary classes of the lycée, these were abolished, as there were too few of them, and everyone went to communal primary schools. These communal primary schools had a curriculum that was made for working-class pupils, i.e. the less culturally developed. The reform dragged everyone down, hence the flight of some students to the private sector. All reforms do this to accommodate population growth. Whereas in activist or experimental groups, people come from the bottom and are pulled up, and do great things. Bourdieu is something else again. He wrote a strange book called Reproduction in Education, where, if you replace the dominant and the dominated with men and women, it works perfectly. In short, he has a vision of reproduction as eternal. His book, The Inheritors, which is about students at the Sorbonne just before 1968, is a scandal because it completely misses the point, and his book on Kabyle women is disgusting, because this book on male domination takes something traditional and says it’s eternal, whereas the survey already dated back fifty years. In the books of Bourdieu’s followers, the decisive thing is the production of the death drive. Domination seems absolutely ineradicable.

So, the line of flight is important.

The line of flight is essential, but you have to take it with caution; if you take the line of flight too quickly, you go round and round in a loop and fall on your face.

In your case, the notions of surveillance and discipline are also important. Were you also influenced by Foucault?

Yes, absolutely. But what I was saying in relation to Foucault is that in this world of discipline that is school or even prison, Foucault was in a good position to talk about it, the capacity for revolt or even for slightly transgressive games exists and is due to collective existence, that is to say you can’t get away with things alone in the way that you can in a group. These little things done in a group can form a kind of snowball, can have a truly transforming virtue, perhaps, and I really insist on the collective reality of the facility.

So, this is your Deleuzo-Guattarian side?

Yes, it’s stronger than my Foucauldian side...

As for the last point, the student always appears in the plural, the case of Jacotot quoted by Rancière...

In Rancière, what interests him is the master, Jacotot. It wasn’t about the students. It’s always like that.

What was the reaction of the members of CERFI to your text on the school, and in general, how did it work within CERFI, the texts published in the journal?

The text was written by individual people to complete the genealogy of collective facilities. There were quite a few collective discussions, but it was Fourquet and Murard who wrote the main part. At some point you have to submit the report, the contract ends on a certain date. The ministry’s principal asked us to do what it called research on research, and write up how things were going. There is something strange, the little bits of research on research were only written by the girls on the team. Was this because the girls were more dominated, or did they take advantage of this to talk about whatever they wanted? In short, there was some discussion in the air. Deleuze and Guattari used my work in their book on Kafka. Schérer and Hocquenghem wrote an article on the mutual school as seen by Fourier in the issue of Recherches where my work was published. At CERFI, there was a general assembly on Tuesdays at 1 pm, from 1 pm to 3 pm or so, to discuss a bit of everything, including the political stuff of the day, demonstrations, working groups, etc. There were working groups, but I still did my thing quite alone, that’s my character.

[book-strip index="2" style="display"]

Wasn’t this one of the proposals in relation to what you wrote?

Yes and no. Yes because it was in line with my ideas, no because the CERFI’s working method was the working groups and the CERFI at that time was quite torn...

Already, a break...

There was a break after the genealogy of collective facilities. Fourquet did his issue of Recherches, ‘L’idéal historique’, which corresponded for him to a change of partner, of domicile and even of references, and there were problems between Murard and Guattari, and so CERFI, which had been very collective up until the issue of Recherches on collective facilities, changed so that it was more everyone doing their own thing.

You spoke of two converging currents in the formation of the group that was to be CERFI, that is to say, on the one hand there was a Communist current, on the other hand…

No, there was a current that would be completely different in May ’68, which was the Trotskyist, Maoist etc. current, a small current which formed around Guattari, which would be involved in the Movement of 22 March in Nanterre, and was able to provide a pole of attraction for a lot of people from that movement up until 1975 or ’76, and from 1974 or 1975, and then in 1975, the government decided to no longer finance contractual research carried out by groups or activists outside the CNRS and the university.

Especially for your group?

Not especially for my group, for all researchers ‘without status’, that is to say in groups outside the CNRS or the university. The homosexual issue of Recherches strongly irritated the ministries. But in the six months following the election of Giscard d’Estaing to the presidency of the Republic, what Chaban-Delmas had called ‘the new society’ after 1968 was over. From 1976 onwards, we were obliged to resort to economic redundancies, because we didn’t have enough money, and then a certain number of us went to look for contracts in other administrations, for example Liane Mozère worked on early childhood with credits from the Caisse d’Allocations Familiales. We discovered that at the ministry of public works there was another office called the Bureau d’Études Sociologiques which was interested in participation. There were little things like that, which led to a dispersion, because the members of the working groups were no longer from the original CERFI core.

How did you meet Guattari?

I was in the UNEF and working for the student health insurance, and then I was in the Union des Étudiants Communistes. In the UEC, Fourquet, Liane Mozère, this little group which had been together during the Algerian war and who were five or six years older than I was, which broke away from the other part of the Communist heritage which didn’t want to make revolution in France etc., I think Fourquet told Guattari that there was a girl who thought like us who could write the text we needed for this rupture, so I was introduced to Guattari like that.

And then you had a little period of absence during May ’68...

In 1966, there were Situationists in Strasbourg who published a manifesto on the misery in the student milieu, and these people closed the Bureau d’Aide Psychologique Universitaire (BAPU), which offered free psychoanalysis for students paid by social security. At that time, in ’66, I was in charge of the national BAPU and I supported the Situationists because the psychoanalysts were using the BAPU to recruit their clientele, but were not doing any work on the problems of the student milieu. Those on the left who didn’t want to make revolution, and there were some on the national board of the mutuelle, made me accept what is now called sexual harassment: if you said that BAPU should be closed down, it was said publicly that this was because of your ovarian frustrations. I resigned because I couldn’t stand this guy who was always harassing me. So, I was free and I started to work with Xavier Joseph on what we could do at CERFI...

While still being a student?

Yes, but I started working for a salary at that time. I worked for six months in a research office which bored me, and I went to Institut National pour la Formation des Adultes under Schwartz and so in ’68 I was with Schwartz but I was enrolled in a post-graduate course at Nanterre with Henri Lefebvre, and in February ’68, when I saw the way things were going at Nanterre, I told Guattari that CERFI would be a bit later...

And you were also in the Movement of March 22?

On 22 March, at Nanterre. Two days before, in a demonstration against the Vietnam war, some friends who had broken the windows of American Express were arrested. On 22 March, we occupied the office on the 6th floor of the administrative tower, the office of the university council, to obtain the release of our comrades. After the Easter holidays, on 2 May, some Maoists from Ulm, École Normale Supérieure, good students of Althusser, came to our anti-imperialist demonstration in Nanterre, and gave us some strange advice: ‘You have to dig ditches in the campus to put boiling oil in, and when the fascists arrive you have to attack them with slingshots.’ The police arrived and the dean closed the college. The next day, I went to the Sorbonne around 3 pm, and I saw my friends being taken away by the cops. Immediately we saw barricades being formed on Boulevard Saint-Michel by people that we had no idea who they were. I was with a girl friend, and we said to ourselves: ‘It’s very dangerous for people to put up barricades, they’re going to be massacred by the police. We must go and look for the only revolutionary forces not yet arrested, the Maoists.’ We arrived at the rue d’Ulm, and the Maoists said to us: ‘Your buddies and the Trotskyists were arrested, we’re here, it must have been the fascists who put up the barricades.’

But with your work on the school, how did you see the university question?

It has a bit to do with what preceded my work on the school. When I was in the UNEF, we tried, though without much support from the students, to set up university work groups to work together and ensure that the better trained the less good. I also did this as a teacher at the university, I always gave collective work and said ‘you will all have the same mark’ and it worked very well at Paris I, that’s the urban sociology course in an economics programme, and it also worked very well at Évry, but not at all at Paris VIII; at Paris VIII, I came up against the individualistic spirit which I hadn’t seen in the two other universities.

It was perhaps a question of the time...

It was the time and it was also the other professors, so frankly, Paris VIII, at the Institut d’Études Européennes, I was very disappointed because I had been recruited by someone I liked, well-known in militant circles, but as a professor he drew his salary, he gave his lectures on the day that suited him, and he didn’t take the time to talk to anyone. It wasn’t just me who said it, the students also said it...

But as regards the school as a place of production of workers, what did you think the university was at the time?

The university is a place of learning, for me it is not a place of production of workers. It’s a place to learn a lot of things, including the discipline in which you hope to work later on, but that’s only one aspect in relation to the openings. But it’s also complicated because I was a good student, my father was a civil servant, and they send you to university to save time, I wasn’t supposed to enter working life too quickly by learning things that could be useful, but it’s very vague and the primary and secondary cycle is also quite vague, so it’s more a case of learning things you like and with one thing leading to another you learn more...

In the work done by the CERFI team, there was not really any work on the university as a collective facility, why was that?

It’s simple, and it’s still valid now. We did work that was ordered by state administrations. The national education administration doesn’t order anything. In the journal Multitudes, we published an issue with stuff on universities in other countries, somewhat in connection with the Bologna Process etc. Before ’68, the UNEF had published a manifesto for the transformation of the university which I re-read recently. There was a big debate in ’65 and ’66 about whether we should reform the structures of the university so that it would be more democratic, more egalitarian, etc., or should we give a salary to all the students so that it would also be more democratic, and in reality, I believe that we should do both. This debate can be found today in the question of universal income, posed by a French philosopher of Austrian origin, André Gorz.

In the Movement of 22 March, was there discussion about the transformation into more egalitarian university systems?

In fact, it was much more about society as a whole. Having said that, the first time Daniel Cohn-Bendit made himself known in the UNEF was when he intervened in a general assembly. He said, ‘This is what Chairman Mao said: “In the exam, copy your neighbours and you will learn something.”’ Cohn-Bendit proposed that this should be the slogan of the UNEF in ’66 or ’67, but the others reacted by saying: the general association of the students of Nanterre has no right to speak, because it doesn’t have enough members, it has 499, it needs 500...

There wasn’t much discussion about this?

No, because during May we were more in favour of liaising with the workers, we went to the factories to demand that the workers be able to go to university without a diploma, we were not at all reformist.

How did you see the foundation of Vincennes at the time?

For me personally, June 1968 was not very pleasant. There were really sexist attacks, and all that in an atmosphere which was much less revolutionary and more and more repressive. The movements were banned on 14 June by the government. In the summer of ’68 I went to the anarchist campsite. I didn’t know the anarchists before ’68. I was very disappointed. I came back from there very unconfident in revolutionary people. As I worked full time for the Institut National pour la Formation des Adultes, Vincennes didn’t really concern me. I have a friend, Marielle Burkharter, who was in the film department at Paris VIII in Vincennes, who filmed Deleuze, all of Deleuze’s classes. I didn’t take part in Vincennes except for Deleuze’s lectures, which were authoritative but of exceptional content. There were 250 of us in a room of 50.

Did you attend Foucault’s lectures at the Collège de France?


So you weren’t aware of what he was doing at that time...

I read him. I worked eight hours a day, I made an exception for Deleuze, because I came across Difference and Repetition. In September ’68, my comrades from 22 March, not all of them, Alain Geismar, Serge July, Erlyn Morane, were writing a book called Vers la guerre civile. I didn’t agree at all with going towards civil war and so I left them and went to Maspero to buy a book to console myself. I took Difference and Repetition and I found it very brilliant. I read Foucault, though his character didn’t appeal to me. But his books are very well written, magnificent.

When you say that the mutual school worked too well, does it also work too well for industrial society?

What I meant was that it worked very well as a school. For the capitalist industrial society, it worked too well, too much, that is to say that people learnt too many things, well beyond the limited nature of the worker’s job. For my part, I like this kind of overspill.

It’s interesting, because you insist on the fact that it was Guizot who was interested in the mutual school...

Guizot became interested in it in 1816 with the Société pour l’Amélioration de l’Instruction Élémentaire. Guizot’s problem was to find a form of schooling which was not the Frères des Écoles Chrétiennes and which was open to non-Catholics. He was enthusiastic, as were the people around him. This seems to have been systematised in a way in India. In the only state in India that remained Communist until very recently, Kerala, they invented the mutual school. Once Guizot was in power, he went against it, and quite effectively, with his letter to teachers in 1833, in which the mutual method was not mentioned, and in 1837, four years later, when he created the Écoles Normales d’Instituteurs. For him, the mutual school was over, he no longer wanted it. The mutual school was, it seems, one of the issues at stake in the demonstrations against the monarchy, at the time of the transition to the July Monarchy. For Guizot, when he took power, it was not good that people were demonstrating, shouting live the mutual schools, down with the Lasallians.

A final very simple question about Foucault. Which book was the most important for you? Was it Discipline and Punish?

Yes, Discipline and Punish was very important. But frankly I was very influenced by Madness and Civilisation, I was very influenced by Words and Things, I was very influenced by The Archaeology of Knowledge, more than by Discipline and Punish... maybe it’s not true at the level of the unconscious, since I like what I’ve just talked about better than Discipline and Punish, I find it more normal....

To write this book, did you draw on Foucauldian ideas?

Foucault and Rancière did the same thing. You had to dig into the archives, and what I really did was imitate them by rummaging through the little, absolutely unknown books that you can find in the Bibliothèque Nationale and which are a reflection of what was published at that time. I don’t know if you know the book called La grammaire logique ou de La science de Dieu that Foucault introduced me to. The author’s name is Jean Pierre Brisset and he entered a competition at the end of the eighteenth century on the subject ‘What is language? This Jean Pierre Brisset explains that once upon a time there was a river, there were frogs in the river bed, and then one day there was a plank, a piece of wood that impeded the flow of water, so the frogs began to croak: ‘What is this excess that is sex’, and from the moment they discovered sex, they also discovered language. Foucault also found a transsexual character called Herculine Barbin...

Translated by David Fernbach

What is Philosophy?
“The question ‘what is philosophy?’ can perhaps only be posed lat in life, with the arrival of old age and the time for speaking concretely. It is a question posed in a moment of quiet restlessness...
Essays Critical and Clinical
“Authors, if they are great, are more like doctors than patients: they are themselves astonishing diagnosticians or symptomatologists.” So wrote the philosopher Gilles Deleuze, setting himself the ...
Reading Capital

Reading Capital

Establishing a rigorous program of “symptomatic reading” that cuts through the silences and lacunae of Capital to reveal its philosophical core, Louis Althusser interprets Marx’s structural analysi...
Mapping Ideology

Mapping Ideology

For a long time, the term ‘ideology’ was in disrepute, having become associated with such unfashionable notions as fundamental truth and the eternal verities. The tide has turned, and recent years ...
The Actuality of Communism
One of the rising stars of contemporary critical theory, Bruno Bosteels discusses the new currents of thought generated by figures such as Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière and Slavoj Žižek, who are s...
Modern Times
In this book Jacques Rancière radicalises his critique of modernism and its postmodern appendix. He contrasts their unilinear and exclusive time with the interweaving of temporalities at play in mo...


Badiou indicts this approach, which reduces politics to a matter of opinion, thus eliminating any of its truly radical and emancipatory possibilities. Against this intellectual tradition, Badiou pr...
For Marx

For Marx

This is the work in which Louis Althusser formulated some of his most influential ideas. For Marx, first published in France in 1968, has come to be regarded as the founding text of the school of “...
On Ideology

On Ideology

The publication of For Marx and Reading Capital established Louis Althusser as one of the most influential figures in the Western Marxist tradition. On Ideology charts Althusser’s critique of the t...
Paperback (2008)
On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat

On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat

No-one and nothing, not even the Congress of a Communist Party, can abolish the dictatorship of the proletariat. That is the most important conclusion of this book by Étienne Balibar. Balibar spell...

Filed under: french-politics, french-theory