We are in a corner of Montreuil where the town begins to feel like a village, with little houses that are sheltered by trees and vines. The road ascends, parents are walking their children back from school, and at a street corner, there is La conquête du pain, the “Conquest of Bread” in English. A bakery that gives off the exquisite smell of hot, crunchy bread.
You could just buy a baguette, yet curious details grab your attention. Like a poster with a list of available sandwiches: you have a choice between the Bakunin (bacon mayonnaise), the Angela Davis (chicken salad), and the Louise Michel (goat cheese pesto). There is a little counter along the wall where you can help yourself to a cup of coffee from a thermos jug and read some tracts and magazines, starting with the Le Monde Libertaire. Close to the shop window, a couch covered in a white sheet invites clients to take a little break. You could sit down and remember that Peter Kropotkin — one of the great anarchist thinkers of the nineteenth century — wrote the Conquest of Bread, among many other books, of which Mutual Aid remains the most fundamental one.
But we are in a bakery, after all, as evidenced by the heat rising from the bread oven in the basement as well as the fine aroma of flour. “People don’t come here because we are self-governed anarchists but because our bread is good,” says Pierre Pavin. “They find the rest amusing.” Yet this bakery would not exist if Pierre and his comrades weren’t anarchists.
From hierarchy to self-government, from monotony to quality
Pierre has worked as a baker before. He liked his work, but he was fed up with repetitive tasks, often performed under the yoke of a supervisor. He is a member of the Federation of Anarchists, and in the spring of 2010, while he was out of work, he had the idea to deliver bread to AMAPs, community-supported farming associations. He shared his idea with Thomas Arnestoy, IT specialist and member of SCALP (the “absolutely anti-Le Pen group”), and with Matthieu, a former classmate from hotel management school. The project thus began through friendship and political affinity. The idea was to set up a bakery as a cooperative production society, a Scop: “self-governed, with a social mission and a regard for the environment, making quality bread and generating a profit.”
They found a site rather quickly, and by the fall the friends were ready to start kneading and baking. “At the outset, it was very hard. This place was a mess,” says Pierre. And they had to deliver 300 loaves of bread every day from the start. “It was hell, we plodded away 20 hours a day. One time, I had a breakdown, I passed out.”
Help, trust, solidarity
But the comrades soldiered on. Friends and family came to their financial aid, allowing them to get the bakery on track, and eventually they settled into a good production and delivery rhythm. Now the Scop has eight employees: four bakers, three sales assistants in the shop, and one delivery man.
And most important, their project got under way. “We began to take a greater interest in the social project,” says Pierre in the early afternoon, after the massive effort of the morning bake (from 3:00 to 8:00 a.m.) and before he goes to take his nap. In October 2012, they introduced a social rate: anyone can ask to be charged only 75 cents for a baguette instead of the regular price of one Euro. “We provide this rate without asking for any proof of financial need, we trust people. We reject this ideology that turns the poor into moochers.” The anarchist bakers also organize community meals at the Cité Jules Ferry and provide bread to workers on strike, such as at the PSA Aulnay automobile plant or the Grandpuits refinery last year.
Time for negotiations, time for good bread
Internally, they practice democracy. Everyone is paid a monthly wage of 1,350 euros net. A general assembly takes place every two weeks. Decisions are taken consensually. “We have had situations where we vote, but not on the important things.” The great issue at the moment is work hours: The bakers work early in the morning but shorter hours than those who work the shop. The delivery man is often called upon at a moment’s notice. They have to figure out how to do right by everybody.
And then, there is the product as such, the heart of it all. They use only quality ingredients, almost all organic, and the flour (two tons per week) comes from a miller who works with a stone mill. Most important, they take the time to let the bread rise well, to decelerate the process, to let it ferment slowly.
Mathieu has been here for three months, after quitting his job as a graphic designer to become a baker, “a trade that is essential to feed people.” In the basement, he describes the steps that lead to good loaf of bread: prepare the dough in the kneading trough, put it in tubs, let the dough rise—14 hours, which is one of their quality secrets—divide it up, shape it, and finally bake it in the burning oven. A trade that requires focus and patience, but also thinking on your feet and working in great heat. “In the summer, temperatures can reach over 100 degrees Fahrenheit,” says Mathieu. “It is hot in here, but I’m not sure whether it’s any worse than sitting in front of a computer all day.”
Leaving the store, it is impossible to resist munching a pain au chocolat, just like the kids who run into and out of the store. Not sure if it’s a Kropotkin or an Elisée Reclus, but it sure is good.