Book review: Everyday Resistance: French Activism in the 21st Century

Edited by Bruno Frère & Marc Jacquemain and reviewed by Cécile Gauthier

4 Mar 2021, 2:58 p.m.
Cécile Gauthier

Everyday Resistance book cover

Book review: Everyday Resistance: French Activism in the 21st Century

Edited by Bruno Frère & Marc Jacquemain and reviewed by Cécile Gauthier

New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019; 307 pp.: ISBN: 978-3-030-18986-0, £103.85 (hbk)


The book Everyday Resistance, edited by the sociologists Bruno Frère and Marc Jacquemain, is in large part an English translation of their book Résister au quotidien? (Frère and Jacquemain, 2013). Some edits have been made in the authors’ chapters and there are three additional chapters which will be detailed below.

Drawing on the pragmatic sociology of criticism (Boltanski and Chiapello, 2005 [1999]), the contributions of the book are almost exclusively set in a French context and focus on daily resistance to the current dominant system. The reflection on contemporary activism offered here is situated at the intersection of different disciplines: sociology, political science, geography, economics, etc. The authors agree on what brings together the forms of contemporary activism – that, despite the weakening of criticism of the capitalist system (Boltanksi and Chiapello, 2005 [1999]), an aversion to injustice remains present in our societies and takes several forms. Indeed, the book is not an advocacy of a renewal of contemporary activism that only takes up with the novelty of ‘new social movements’. Instead, the authors focus on describing these forms of actor engagement through actors’ concrete daily practices, based on an empirical analysis of actors’ repertoires of actions and justificatory discourses.

Thus, the authors approach the continuities and transformations of contemporary activism through three major characteristic features. First, they raise the issue of the pressure of necessity as one of the main motivations of contemporary activism. Then, they focus on the ambiguous relationship of these collectives with the state. Finally, they address the difficulties linked to the ‘rise to generality’ of everyday forms of resistance.

First, this ‘pressure of necessity’ is addressed in the book through forms of engagement born of a ‘moral shock’. Indeed, in Chapter 2, the authors Lafaye and de Blic present the emotional shock of parents and teachers discovering the threats of expulsion faced by pupils from their school. This pressure of necessity is then addressed in the face of the urgent need to help victims of injustice (Chapter 2). Marta Roca i Escoda (Chapter 3) discusses the pressure to help sick people in the community, describing the emergence of homosexual militancy with the advent of AIDS. Three grounds for engagement are described in Chapters 2 and 3: moral or emotional shock often linked to an experience; belonging to a community (a neighbourhood or linked to an individual’s identity); and urgency of action (due to deportation or illness). This same ‘pressure of necessity’ is also present in the chapters on the diversity of anti-capitalist economic movements (Chapter 5), where their development may sometimes be linked to inhabitants’ living conditions. Finally, Fabrice Ripoll’s Chapter 7 on the creation of Associations for the Preservation of Small-Scale Farming and Related Organisations (AMAP) addresses activism in the face of repeated health crises and food security problems.

According to the authors, contemporary activism seems to have commonalities in praxis. They draw on French sociologist Jacques Ion (2012) to shed light on the distinction between ‘distanced engagement’, characteristic of contemporary forms of activism, and ‘total engagement’, specific to traditional forms such as the labour movement until the early 1980s. According to Ion, the first type of activism emphasises individual emancipation, networking, organisational informality, the collective and consensus-making, while the second focuses on the individual’s symbolic sacrifice to the cause or movement. Also, Ion studied the importance of the praxis through what he calls ‘pragmatic activism’. Indeed, Eric Dacheux (Chapter 5) demonstrates that social and solidarity economy activists wish to be involved in concrete economic actions, since ‘the economic practices are intended as critiques-in-action of capitalism’ (p. 98). Next, Gael Depoorter (Chapter 6), through the example of the Free Software Community, presents the common objective of this community that has been constituted around one main demand: the liberation of code, on which depend the two main rules – a DIY ethos, and the organised mutualisation or sharing of knowledge. Once again, action is a guiding principle for those activists who turn to these DIY practices and the emancipation possibilities that they offer. This dimension of pragmatic activism is also found in Chapter 9 by Sylvaine Bulle when she addresses it through the notion of the politicisation of the slightest gesture within the experience of territorial utopia of the ‘Zone to Defend’ of Notre-Dame-des-Landes (ZAD of NDDL): ‘In other words, the occupation’s temporality means each gesture is directly integrated into political uses and every resource is situated in the perspective of defence or engagement’ (p. 216; emphasis in original).

The second issue addressed in the book is the ambiguous relationship with the state. The state is often presented both as an adversary and as the authority with which partnerships must be made. This tension is particularly explicit in Chapter 3, and then in Chapter 4, ‘Fighting for Poor People’s Rights in the French Welfare State’, whose author, Frédéric Viguier, clearly shows the tensions involved in collaboration, which remains indispensable for many activist organisations that depend on public subsidies. The authors speak of the Sisyphus effect: short victories obtained at the price of a refusal to question systemic effects, while maintaining a relationship of domination and state control by accepting the delegation of public social services.

However, the authors do not neglect the subversive capacities of certain forms of activism. The three chapters devoted to the Free Software Community (Chapter 6), AMAP (Chapter 7) and the ZAD of NDDL (Chapter 9) are revealing on this point. For the first, the criticism of capitalism lies in the refusal of private appropriation of collective intellectual work and in emancipatory capacities through DIY practices. According to these chapters’ authors, these organisations or associations tend to generate ‘non-intentional critical effects’ or ‘critical externalities’ thanks to the plurality of the levels of engagement of their volunteers.

Finally, the authors also insist on the difficulties of a practical utopia, that is, the passage from ordinary resistance to a coherent praxis and the struggle to ‘rise to generality’. In this regard, Chapter 5 points out the internal political divisions of anti-capitalist economic movements that weaken the construction of an anti-capitalist proposing force, whereas Chapter 8 focuses on the omnipresence of latent sexism within groups of activists in the civil disobedience movement. Moreover, Chapter 9 points to the successes of the ZAD of NDDL without ignoring the difficulties of accommodating the different groups of occupants in the construction of a utopia detached from institutions, advocating individual autonomy and without a designated leader. Bruno Frère’s study of solidarity economy’s movements in Chapter 10 also addresses this question of the difficulty of representativeness in collectives without a leader or systematic spokesperson. He then shows through his case study of two organisations what he calls ‘the inability to address the issue of power head-on’ (p. 15). But finally, as Chapter 11 by Lilian Mathieu reminds us, the ‘old’ social movements faced the same difficulties, particularly when defining their post-capitalist utopia.

To conclude, this book offers a panorama of varied forms of engagement at different levels of radicality. Furthermore, a spatial dimension of contemporary forms of activism is explored in Chapter 8: ‘This is a question of how the activist space reconfigures the relations of male domination characteristic of contemporary society, because collective action constitutes a “space-time” in which social relations of sex are constantly “replayed” (Dunezat 2006)’ (p. 190). In Chapter 9, the author also addresses the attractiveness of ‘inhabiting’ the space of the ZAD for critical and experimental purposes: ‘this dual aspect explains why the preservation of the bocage and its agricultural upkeep is a space of offensive deployment and, at the same time, a retreat from the metropolises’ (p. 214; emphasis in original). According to the author, these experimental and utopian spaces would be a way to overcome structures of domination as they allow individuals to be emancipated from the state and the dominant economic processes (Harvey, 2005).

However, some passages or a dedicated chapter on the qualitative method of inquiry would have enriched the research on these alternative social contexts. Perhaps this chapter would have shown the qualitative techniques used, the difficulties in accessing data and the position and engagement of the researcher within these alternative and activist environments.

Overall, this book questions the practice of politics through everyday resistances. The authors invite social science research not to seek absolutely totalising anti-capitalist experiences that would perhaps reproduce the same errors as yesterday’s social movements. Instead, they invite researchers to look at the practices and forms that commitment takes every day in order to rethink criticism and radicality in the face of the current dominant system.



Boltanski, L, Chiapello, E (2005) The New Spirit of Capitalism. London and New York: Verso.
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Frère, B, Jacquemain, M (2013) Résister au quotidien?Paris: Les presses de SciencesPo.
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Harvey, D (2005) A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Google Scholar | Crossref
Ion, J (2012) S’engager dans une société d’individus. Paris: Armand Colin.
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