Patrick Chastenet and Jacques Ellul, the rebellious student and the professor of freedom

The address refers to a pretty white stone house, in a residential area in the south of Bordeaux. Nothing suggests it from the street, but it is there, behind this imposing Gironde facade, that the Jacques-Ellul International Association has been headquartered for more than ten years. At its head, the talkative political scientist Patrick Chastenet tirelessly strives to popularize the thought of the great legal historian and Protestant theologian Jacques Ellul (1912-1994).

Rows of libraries full of his works, old plaques from the room bearing his name given by Science-Po Bordeaux, photographs of the eminent theorist … On the second floor of the building, the office of Patrick Chastenet – now a professor of political science and member of the Montesquieu Center for Political Research at the University of Bordeaux – is indeed imbued with the universe of the great “Thinker of technical society and modernity”, which he studied at the dawn of the 1970s.

→ READ. Jacques Ellul, watchman of freedom

Young Patrick, who grew up in La Rochelle (Charente-Maritime), was just 18 years old when he landed on the benches of the Institute of Political Studies (IEP) in Bordeaux. Revolted against authority, very anticlerical, he aspires to become a journalist. “I had never heard of Jacques Ellul before”, he recounts bluntly, “Being neither Bordeaux, nor Protestant, nor even an environmentalist, I had no reason to be in his first circle of admirers. I was rather fascinated by the couple Jean-Paul Sartre-Simone de Beauvoir ”.

The teacher and the pupil

Very quickly he measures how much the teacher “Fly above others”. “It was he who mobilized the crowds. His courses (on Marx’s thought, on technical society, propaganda and Marx’s successors) were fascinating. They attracted a series of foreign students, especially Americans from Colorado and California. “ It was moreover through them that Patrick Chastenet indirectly got to know Jacques Ellul: to finance his thesis, he became their “tutor”, responsible for re-explaining the thorniest parts of the course to them.

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With his diploma in hand, he began to give Ellul’s students oral exams on Marx’s thought. The relationship between the two men quickly takes a more personal turn. Under bad auspices, first. “A young student – whom I later learned to be on the extreme right – once accused me of not marking him because of his political beliefs. He complained about it to Jacques Ellul, who himself seized the director of the establishment without listening to both parties… It almost cost me my first temporary job! “, he protests again.

Once things are back to normal – the Gascon sociologist having finally made amends – the link is forged more concretely. “I’m not going to repeat history by saying that I was Ellulien in the second. It was done gradually ”, specifies Patrick Chastenet.

Twenty years of conversations

Between the former student and the “master”, nearly twenty years of regular conversations, steeped in deep mutual esteem, will unfold. “I used to go to see him at“ la Marrière ”, his house in Pessac. Little by little, I let myself be carried away, I became attached to his personality, as much as to his written work ”, continues Patrick Chastenet. At the time, the property also saw the parade of anti-nuclear and conscientious objectors from the surroundings.

Symbol of Jacques Ellul’s delicacy towards him, the anecdote is close to his heart: “With my limited sense of direction, for years I showed up with my R5 at his place through the wrong entrance. He had to put on his beret, cross the garden, remove a chain to open it… He waited until he was very ill, at the end of his life, to show me the main entrance! ” Far from man “A little peremptory” Described by some of his colleagues at the time, the political scientist portrays a patient, indulgent and very benevolent man.

Ecology, critiques of modern society, according to Ellul, subject to technology, “Christian anarchism”“During these long discussions, we could tackle very precise questions – the influence of the philosopher Heidegger on his thought, for example – like drifting in a somewhat disorderly way towards other subjects”, he smiles. The dialectical way of thinking about the world of the legal historian – then relatively isolated, for its anti-conformism, on the intellectual scene – seems to have shaped his: “Jacques Ellul always went against the grain, challenging ‘dominant thought’ as we would call it today. »

“Professor of freedom”

“Whenever we dwelled on a binary question, he took the lead. He showed and demonstrated all the contradictions, the dead ends, of the two postures. It is only one formula, but one could qualify him as “professor of freedom” ”, he remembers. Of all the Ellulian analyzes, those which always seem to powerfully inspire the sixty-something-year-old relate to the hunt for commonplaces in the dominant ideology, in particular around the place of man in society, information-propaganda, bioethics. …

Sometimes, the conversation turns to a more intimate ground, as when Jacques Ellul confides in him that one of his colleagues, at the time of his painful dismissal under Vichy after a student denounced him in 1940 for having criticized Marshal Pétain, appropriated his books without ever returning them to him after the Liberation.

→ ANALYSIS. “Reform” publishes an unpublished work by theologian Jacques Ellul

Deeply committed to his Reformed faith, the Bordeaux professor also accepts, at his request, to discuss his conversion at the age of 18. “Before Bordeaux, I myself, a child and adolescent, went through very difficult Catholic boarding schools, in Vendée and Poitiers. Without our meeting, I might never have overcome my rejection of anything to do with religion. Even if everything is still far from being settled today ”, assures Patrick Chastenet, who was also interested in the theological aspect of the Ellulienne work.

May 1994 marks the death of “Pioneer of degrowth”. “At his funeral, I cried like a madeleine. I was ashamed of it, because it was seen… His eldest son who came to console me, it was the world upside down ”, he confides, his throat tied. The memory of the scene still arouses, in Patrick Chastenet, a very strong emotion: “I, who was raised by my paternal grandparents, considered Ellul a bit like a spiritual father. Psychologists would say it is obvious. “

A renewed interest

Today director of Jacques-Ellul Notebooks, president of the International Jacques-Ellul Association, member of the board of directors of the International Jacques Ellul Society, Patrick Chastenet continues to promote his heritage. “He meant a lot to me, and he still matters. To the point that it could have been dizzying, sometimes overwhelming, obscuring the rest of my work ”, he concedes, pointing to the ground six imposing files of “Ellul years”.

Last fall, he again published Introduction to Jacques Ellul (1), addressing the main lines of Ellulian thought. Today he is delighted to see a renewed interest in the work of the Christian thinker, which has remained discreet in recent decades in France: “The themes he addressed – ecology, technique, the meaning of our excessively sociable societies… – speak to our time, he smiles. Jacques Ellul is really someone who was right too early. “


Patrick Chastenet

1955. Born in Vesoul. Raised from his 6 months by his grandparents in La Rochelle.

1973. After his schooling in Catholic boarding schools, he arrived at Sciences-Po Bordeaux, where he followed the courses of Jacques Ellul.

Late 1970s. He also teaches there. He proposes, as a freelance writer, subjects to several media on Ellul. Until 1994, the two will see each other regularly.

1992. Publishes Read Ellul. Introduction to the work socio-political by Jacques Ellul.

1993. Appointed lecturer in political science at the law school of Bordeaux.

2000. Founds, with David Gill and Sylvain Dujancourt, the International Jacques-Ellul Association. Agrégé, he was appointed to Reims, then moved to Poitiers.

Today. Since 2009, he has been teaching at the University of Bordeaux, and is a researcher at the Montesquieu Center for Political Research. He directs the Jacques-Ellul Notebooks.


Jacques Ellul

January 1912. Born in Bordeaux. He converted to Protestantism at 18. Bachelor at 16, he obtained a doctorate in law at 24.

1930s. Frequent the personalist current of Emmanuel Mounier and the review Esprit, with which he will then break off.

1937. Married Yvette Lensvelt, mother of her four children. He became a lecturer in Montpellier, then in Strasbourg in 1938.

1940. Revoked by Vichy, he moved to Martres (Gironde), where he learned the peasant trade and joined the Resistance. He obtained a law degree in 1943.

[1945 At the Liberation, he was deputy mayor of Bordeaux for six months, then decided to devote himself to his teaching at IEP Bordeaux.

1956-1971. Member of the national council of the Reformed Church of France. From 1958, he took action against youth delinquency.

May 1994. Dies in Pessac, leaving behind about sixty pounds and nearly a thousand articles.

(1) The Discovery, € 10.

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