France Goes Postal

Article excerpt

Byline: Tracy Mcnicoll

The rise of an unlikely politician highlights the country's deep identity crisis.


From financial cataclysm to the greatest recession in modern memory, this global crisis has been a story of mass, mounting misery punctuated by a series of unthinkables. The collapse of historic banks, yo-yo markets, crash bailouts brokered overnight, world leaders of every stripe scrambling to summits to "rethink capitalism."

The world is upside down. Unless you're French--in which case you've harbored a deep suspicion about the whole system all along. The French have long been leery about globalization, even when they're on its good side, and have clamored for protection at the expense of growth. Dismissing the government's pleas for unity in crisis, they took to the streets en masse last week to stop reforms promised long before the system was stood on its head. So now, at a moment when the world has caught up with the deeply entrenched French belief that the unrestrained animal spirits--in John Maynard Keynes's famous phrase--might have more than a few drawbacks, it is hardly surprising that French affections have lurched even further to the left.

In fact, it has leaped over the mainstream left-leaning party, the chaotic, inarticulate, in-fighting Socialists, and found a standard-bearer in 34-year-old Olivier Besancenot, a radical leftist with a penchant for Trotsky and Che Guevara and a platform that includes forbidding layoffs, boosting the minimum wage by one third, and giving everyone a [euro]300 net raise. With bank nationalization suddenly a real point of discussion in the United States, Great Britain and elsewhere, Besancenot is taking things a step further. He wants the state to expropriate banks and insurance companies, bankrupt or not, to create a giant public banking service run by the people. Or, as he writes in the Communist Revolutionary League's party magazine "Rouge," "if bosses refuse to share the right to property, if they oppose worker control, we demand their expropriation and worker self-management of their companies."

Anywhere but France, the cartoonish spokesman of the Communist Revolutionary League, a Trotskyite political party, would be relegated to the fringe. But in France, Besancenot, a postman in his day job, is a star. And as storm clouds gather, he has become the country's most influential opposition figure. Besancenot has achieved a 60 percent popularity rating, with 45 percent of those polled saying they want to see him have more influence in the future, ahead of mainstream leaders like the centrist Francois Bayrou (44 percent) and new Socialist leader Martine Aubry (42 percent). Among Socialist sympathizers, 62 percent want him to have more influence in French politics, ahead of many other figures, including the Socialists' own heavyweights. Perhaps even more extraordinarily, in a December poll--for the fourth month in a row--he was deemed the "best opponent" to face center-right French President Nicolas Sarkozy, which is no less than a humiliation for the Socialist Party.

Besancenot will parlay that popularity into the provisionally named New Anticapitalist Party he'll launch this weekend to replace the Communist Revolutionary League. The new party will formalize the blend of demands Besancenot has built his success on--calls for communist revolution mixed with modern, post-materialist causes like minority rights and the environment. The aim is to broaden its reach by dropping the archaic name and insular connotations in time for June's European Parliament elections.

Besancenot got his start in politics in 2002, as the Communist Revolutionary League's presidential candidate with the simple slogan "Olivier Besancenot, age 27, postman," taking full advantage of electoral rules that give even marginal candidates equal time to get their ideas into homes nationwide. Five years later, he ran again, still a postman and still 22 years younger than the average presidential candidate, and won a respectable 4 percent of the vote, placing fifth in a 12-horse field, ahead of France's disparate pack of far leftists. …