Revolutionary Communist League leader and presidential candidate Olivier Besancenot.
Campaigning in the northern French town of Lille, Besancenot musters around 2,000 supporters -- mostly young people, many of them students wearing Palestinian scarves, but also a few gray-haired comrades who hope their youthful leader can free them from the fate of being just another factious fringe group. This may not be a false hope: Besancenot can mix up anti-capitalist slogans with bourgeois arguments. "Our purchasing power is sinking, while profits are exploding. When will there be a fair distribution of wealth?" Or: "The rulers of the world are bleeding the Third World to death. When will there be a world without war and poverty?"
It is ten days before the first round of voting and the leading candidates, Nicolas Sarkozy of the conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) and Ségolène Royal of the Socialist Party (PS), are continuing with their predictable and hugely expensive campaigns, always in the firm grip of PR advisers and communications strategists. Meanwhile Besancenot is making an impression with his almost naïve seriousness. This is partly due to his role as political outsider and also because the Trotskyite's political convictions overlap with his own background.
The rebel leader is a postman by profession, who delivers letters and packages in Neuilly-sur-Seine, on the outskirts of Paris. "He embodies all the best qualities that citizens would like to see in a revolutionary of the 21st century," writes the essayist Alain Duhamel. "Even his greatest foes from the bourgeois camp wouldnt hesitate to pick him up if he was hitchhiking."
Hoping for a grassroots revolution
The Jacques Tatti of the revolution joined the LCR's youth group when he was 15 years old and went on to study history at university. But he wanted to stay close to the grassroots, so he decided upon a career at the post office -- revolutionary communists are not forbidden from getting state jobs in France. He earned his spurs in the party as assistant to the legendary party leader Alain Krivine, who was also a member of the European parliament. Besancenot took over as the party's presidential candidate at the tender age of 28 and won 4.5 percent of the vote in the first round of the 2002 elections.
Besancenot is unlikely to win this year either, even if he could be the first far-left candidate to reach 5 percent of the vote. The LCR is just one of three competing Trotskyite organizations who are putting up candidates in the first round of the elections -- that too is something of a French exception in the world. Apart from Besancenot, there is Gérard Schivardi, the 56-year-old candidate for the Workers Party (PT) and the 67-year-old Arlette Laguillier, who is running for the last time, after six candidacies for the Workers Struggle Party (LO) since 1974.
All of these revolutionary groups can trace their roots back to the Russian communist leader Leon Trotsky, who arrived in Paris in 1929 after fleeing the Soviet Union. The rivalries between the communist groups, who been involved in bitter trench warfare for decades, have not prevented them from combining into a vigorous association of "the true left." But they have failed to build any bridges with the Communist Party, the anti-globalization campaigners or the Greens.
As a result, the alternative left can only realistically poll a maximum of 11 percent. Not even enough for a single candidate to get past the first round -- but enough to cause the Socialist Party star Ségolène Royal some concern. She could need these percentage points when French voters decide on April 22 who goes through to the second round.
"Globalization like a ticking time bomb"
Appearing on the red-lit stage in Lille and looking a bit like his exuberant young supporters, Besancenot warns against these kinds of election calculations. "I repeatedly hear this argument," he says, while emphatically fulminating against the "danger" of a President Nicolas Sarkozy. "But one doesnt just vote with the head, but also with the heart."
And to a large extent he is appealing to these hearts without using the ideological weapons of slogans. A call for solidarity with Algeria, where attacks have caused death and injury, and then a remark about the "oppressed Palestinians" in the Middle East and criticism of the war in Iraq. But the core of his speech, full of wit and verve, are social themes: unemployment, housing shortages, and "a globalization that is like a ticking time bomb in our regions and suburbs." To much applause Besancenot demands unlimited contracts for job starters and an increase in the minimum wage to 300 euro a month. "And that should be net, because even your baker calculates baguettes in net prices, not gross."
The LCR leader doesnt just demand a program for affordable housing, but also the confiscation of empty real estate, and free public transport at night. He complains about genetically modified crops and calls for a revolt against the big agricultural multinationals, which "shouldnt be allowed to decide what legislation affects our fields and our tables." Above all, he asks for a new solidarity amongst workers, who are squeezed like lemons and thrown away like used tissues. "We need a second May 1968," he says referring to the historic street revolutions by students and workers. "We will only achieve it through a common struggle."
This is where Besancenot sees a role for his party -- right after the presidential elections, representing immigrants and marginalized young people through socially engaged grassroots groups. He defends himself against charges of utopianism and calls for a break with tradition. He envisions politicians who don't hold more than one office, are paid an average wage, and get elected through a nationwide system of proportional representation. These planks alone would be almost revolutionary in France.
That is why he not only shuns the right, but also rebukes the socialists and their candidate. "What is the patriotism debate in the Socialist Party about? They have the 'Marseillaise' on an endless loop, but forget to talk about the taboo topic of immigration, because they fear it won't win them any votes in the election campaign."
The LCR gathering ends with a rendition of the "Internationale" -- with Besancenot and his comrades raising their clenched fists. At first it drags a bit but then it gets louder and by the refrain it is almost moving, sounding like a real hymn of the working class. Always well organized -- the Trotskyites had handed out the music and lyrics beforehand.