Gauche Politics: Radical Leftism Resurges in France

Article excerpt

Nicolas Sarkozy took office as president of France with a broad agenda of sweeping economic reform. Unlike Britain and the United States, both of which began the process of economic liberalization around 1980, France had largely maintained its post-war bipartisan consensus of dirigisme, or relatively tight state control of the economy. As of Sarkozy's 2007 election, France was consistently among the world's most productive economies, but tight labor laws, generous pensions, and reduced working hours drew great criticism for retarding economic growth. In this setting, Sarkozy promised economic modernization while urging his citizens toward hard work and progress: he pledged to restore values of "work, authority, merit, and respect for the nation." His program may have aggravated a number of leftists, but it attracted the support of over 55 percent of French voters. Citizens were keen to match the economic growth of their fellow Western countries, and many expressed concern at the spiraling national debt, which had risen from 20 percent of France's GDP in 1981 to over 60 percent when Sarkozy took office.

Yet less than halfway through his term, Sarkozy's original agenda lies largely in tatters. In response to the global economic crisis of 2008, the French people have begun to look to the left. Surprisingly, the main benefactor of this backlash against market capitalism has not been the Socialist Party (PS), the traditional rival of Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), but rather the radical politician Olivier Besancenot. Sarkozy's reaction to this development has been to rapidly roll back his plans for modernization in exchange for, essentially, a reaffirmation of dirigisme.

Unlike Sarkozy, who is sometimes derided by his rivals as an elitist and a foreigner for being descended from Greek and Hungarian aristocracy, Besancenot's credentials are immaculately French and working-class: he has spent much of his working life as a postman. Sarkozy aided his rise by presenting himself as a youthful, modernizing alternative to the septuagenarian "dinosaurs" who had preceded him. Until Sarkozy took office, the presidency was widely seen as a preserve of elder statesmen who were disconnected from the public. Advocates of these presidents regarded them as wise, but critics accused men such as Francois Mitterand and Jacques Chirac of being resistant to positive change. Sarkozy's fresh-faced image has now been overtaken by Besancenot, who at 35 is nearly 20 years his junior and is a truly radical leader. Besancenot was for several years the leader of the Revolutionary Communist League, (LCR) a party comprised largely of middle-aged union workers, which supports a definitively Trotskyist ideology.

The LCR has historically had minimal electoral success during its existence. Besancenot ran for the presidency in 2007, but attracted less than 5 percent of the vote. This was enough, however, for him to be noticed as a charismatic political figure on the rise. The economic crisis of 2008 presented an opportunity for him to expand the base and ambitions of his movement. In February 2009, Besancenot disbanded the LCR and founded a new party, the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA). …