From music to armed struggle, from 1968 to Action directe: an interview with Jean-Marc Rouillan (1)
Before starting, we need to talk about a strike…
The editorial board of the journal Transposition – of which I am a member – has joined the mobilisation of academic journal boards in the humanities and social sciences, and staff in higher education and research, in support of the social and inter-professional protests in France. In order to demonstrate against the increasing financial precariousness and lack of professional opportunities for young researchers, we voted on Tuesday 14 January 2020 to temporarily suspend our editorial and scientific activities. A symbolic strike in order to free up time to actively participate in demonstrations, to reflect on the conditions and issues at stake in our work as researchers, and also to publish blog posts such as this.
The immediate consequence of the temporary suspension of Transposition activities is the delay in the publication of the special issue “Sound, Music and Violence“, of which I am the editor. The issue brings together more than a dozen texts on a topic that resonates strongly with current events in France, but also elsewhere, for example in Chile and Hong Kong. At the centre of the issue is an interview I conducted in April 2019 with Jean-Marc Rouillan, a founding member of Action directe.1 While waiting for our collective demands to be heard and for the resumption of Transposition’s activities, I have decided to publish here multimedia excerpts from this interview, in the form of four weekly blog posts.2
The Irish band Them, Paco Ibáñez and The Clash are taking part in this first blog post. Enjoy.3
Jean-Marc Rouillan was born in Auch (France) in 1952. He participated in the anti-Franco struggle and the autonomist movements in Spain and France in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He then continued in armed struggle with Action directe (1977–1987). Described as an extreme left-wing terrorist group by the French State and the media, the members of Action directe considered themselves to be a European revolutionary group—like the Red Army Fraction (Rote Armee Fraktion, RAF) in Germany and the Red Brigades (Brigate Rosse, BR) in Italy. For Action directe, the struggle for emancipation and autonomy was indissociable from “challenging the monopoly of violence held by the State”.4 Consequently, armed struggle was part of their existence, including bank robberies, machine-gun fire and bomb attacks against state buildings or international military organisations (NATO, Interpol), followed by targeted assassinations of industrial and military leaders.
In February 1987, Jean-Marc Rouillan was arrested with the other members of the historic nucleus of Action directe, and sentenced to life imprisonment. He spent 28 years in prison, including roughly ten years in solitary confinement. He was granted various parole arrangements between 2007 and 2018. Since his final release on 18 May 2018, he can now express himself publicly about the actions for which he was convicted. In this interview, Jean-Marc Rouillan talks about the connection between his musical practice and his political commitment since the May 1968 events in France, the role of music and sound in the armed struggle of Action directe, and the place he attributes to music in the history of political struggles.
Music and politics: from 1968 to Action directe
Luis Velasco-Pufleau: In your book Je regrette, you say that at one time you played guitar and electric bass.5 What role did music play in your political activism and in your choice to use armed violence?
Jean-Marc Rouillan: We should go back to the beginning of my activism, because my political commitment in 1968 was preceded by musical commitment. The music, literature, poetry and underground culture of the 1960s were central to my commitment. Playing music was like going underground in anticipation of something, in anticipation of a confrontation. But that could not satisfy the commitment that my life was going to make. Finally, the May 1968 events in France arrived and I moved from music to political activism. (It is complex and cannot be untied.) Then, the armed activism drew its inspiration from the same culture as the punk and autonomist movements. For me and the other members of Action directe, music, literature, poetry—the arts—were crucial to our armed action.
LVP: How did your listening to music give meaning to the upcoming confrontation?
JMR: When I was a kid, listening to a particular song was a shock. I was listening to the song “Gloria” by Them, an Irish band from the 1960s, on the jukebox. After the guitar solo of this song, there is a reprise where you really feel that something is going to happen, that something has to happen. When I was listening to this music, I said to myself, “Something will happen in our lives”. The English musical wave preceded 1968; it shaped it culturally but preceded it in expression: “We are the baby boom generation and we won’t accept to be ordered about by the old and always wear grey”. This idea was expressed by the music. Speaking of a love story, Them would say, “We’re going to shake up the world”.
LVP: Then 1968 brought about the changes you were waiting for.
JMR: Music was part of this expectation of the spread of the conflict, in which I was going to play my part. Before the first demonstration I went to in May 1968, we were waiting to go to rehearsal in a bar, listening to the jukebox. A friend came into the bar and said, “What? You’re going to rehearse when there’s a demonstration? We’re going to go fight the cops.” And we said, “Okay, let’s go fight.” After May 1968, militant activism meant that I could no longer play music. It was a choice.
LVP: So you “put away your Fender guitar” and abandoned your “plan to move to a music squat near Piccadilly Circus”.6 Did you completely stop playing music after 1968?
JMR: I hardly played any more, except in the hideouts in Spain in the early 1970s, when I was involved in the armed struggle against the Franco dictatorship. Most of the Catalan Spanish comrades had had a musical life before their life in hiding. There were always guitars, and people played them at night. Sometimes, during the day, we would play a few chords together; we would sing. I had a culture of protest songs: anti-Franco through Paco Ibañez and Latin American with Quilapayun. At that time, we listened to a lot of music.
LVP: What was the music you were listening to at the time of Action directe?
JMR: The music we were listening to at the beginning of Action directe, at our meetings or on our car radios in 1977–1978, was mainly punk and a little rockabilly. We also listened to singers, like Léo Ferré, whose lyrics were close to our militant commitment. But above all we listened to punk: The Clash, much more than the Sex Pistols. There was a politicization that spoke to us, the punk culture of “Do it yourself—DIY” was decisive for us.
LVP: Did you often go to concerts together?
JMR: Yes, at that time we were doing armed actions but were not really “wanted” yet, so we could go to shows. One such musical adventure of the historic nucleus of Action directe is when we went to London in July 1977 for a major rockabilly festival. We saw Crazy Cavan and other old rockabilly bands. Then in the evening we went to the Marquee Club, where we saw a concert of the Pirates, Johnny Kidd’s former band. The following year, we saw The Clash in concert in Paris. [The gig took place on 16 October 1978 at the Stadium]
LVP: How important was this show for you?
JMR: It was important because it was at the time of the autonomous movement. In 1978, we kept the spirit of freemusic, this late-1960s principle of not paying for concerts when they were organised by big companies that made money with music. When we went to see The Clash, there were about three hundred of us autonomous activists, and we said we were going to force our way in. That’s when Joe Strummer [the singer and guitarist of The Clash] came out and asked what was going on. We explained the situation to him, that we were not going to pay to come in and see them. He said, “Okay, as soon as we start the first song, they’ll open the doors and you can come in”. It was the first time I met Joe Strummer. The second time was in 1981 (at the beginning of the Mitterrand years, when Action directe was legal); he was in Paris doing a concert at the Mogador theatre and we met for a coffee.
Featured Image: Paris, 2 mai 1968 : Début de « Mai 68 ». By Paille, source flickr (CC BY-SA).
- Velasco-Pufleau, Luis, “From Music to Armed Struggle, from 1968 to Action Directe: An Interview with Jean-Marc Rouillan”, Transposition, no. Hors-série 2, 2020, https://journals.openedition.org/transposition/3780. DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/transposition.3780
- In the special issue of Transposition, the interview is followed by three critical commentaries by Matthew Worley (University of Reading), Timothy Scott Brown (Northeastern University) and Jeremy Varon (New School
- The following is from an interview at the Maison des métallos in Paris on 10 April 2019. This meeting was part of the research I have been conducting for several years on the role of sound and music in dynamics of violence and armed struggles. In this context, the testimony of Jean-Marc Rouillan seemed to me to be of undeniable importance. The text retains, as far as possible, the general tone of the meeting. I would like to thank Rémi Philton and Stéphanie Gernet for making this interview possible, and Thierry Discepolo for his contributions to the editing of this text.
- Rouillan, Jann Marc, Dix ans d’Action directe: Un témoignage, 1977-1987, Marseille, Agone, 2018, p. 36. https://agone.org/dixansdactiondirecte/
- Rouillan, Jann Marc, Je regrette, Marseille, Agone, 2016, chaps. 33 and 173. https://agone.org/jeregrette/
- Ibid., chap. 33.