JEAN-PAUL PELISSIER/REUTERSRevolutionary Communist League leader Olivier Besancenot at a rally last year

Lille

When French students began demonstrating forty years ago this spring to demand more autonomy in the universities and to protest the stifling rule of Gen. Charles de Gaulle, many thought it would be just another bout of youthful elitist exuberance. But after the stone-throwing and sloganeering in the streets of Paris’s Latin Quarter led to a general workers’ strike and the Fifth Republic nearly collapsed, May 1968 became a seminal moment in modern French history–a movement of hope and liberation infused with far-left and anarchic undercurrents in the eyes of its supporters, a crisis that threatened to plunge stolid France into chaos, in the somber view of its foes.

In the wake of les événements, when dreams of utopia still hovered in the air, new left parties mushroomed, giving succor to the bubbling and sometimes contradictory tensions animating May ’68. One of them was the Communist League, a small Trotskyist group formed in 1969 that openly challenged the monopoly of the Socialist and Communist parties on the left. It denounced the compromises of the Socialists with the market economy and of the Communists with the crimes of Stalin and the Soviet Union. The Communist League even ran one of the May ’68 student leaders, Alain Krivine, in the presidential elections the following year. He garnered only about 1 percent of the vote, and the small party, beset by ideological and personal divisions, never blossomed into a political force, a reflection of the fact that May ’68 was in the end more a cultural revolution than a political one.

As France commemorates the fortieth anniversary with a flurry of debates, books, movies and celebrations, the Old Left looks its age. The Socialist Party is divided, the Communist Party is a shambles and the supporters of both are searching for answers. Enter Olivier Besancenot, the charismatic 34-year-old leader of the Revolutionary Communist League, the successor of the Communist League, known by its French acronym LCR.

Surfing on the mounting resentment toward the pro-market policies of conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy, the tepid opposition of the establishment left and his own newfound popularity, Besancenot is convinced that the time is ripe to upset the existing order.

So on a chilly January night, he ventured into France’s northern region. With its hulking steel mills and red-brick mining towns from a bygone era, its rich cast of trade-union and political leaders, the north of France has for decades been a bastion of the Old Left.

Besancenot had come to urge leftist militants to join the new “anticapitalist” party the LCR decided to form at its last annual gathering in a daring bid to rejuvenate itself and lure disillusioned members of the Old Left and the younger, anti-racist and global justice crowd.

This is no joke. To be sure, no Trotskyist will likely ever sit in the Élysée Palace, and power will probably continue to alternate between a conservative bloc and the Socialist Party for years to come. But two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, France has by far the most vibrant revolutionary left in Western Europe. And Besancenot, a postman who doubles as the LCR’s chief spokesman, is probably its most able representative, an everyday man turned charismatic national figure, a young amateur politician standing out in a sea of party apparatchiks.

Striding onto the podium of a small concert hall wearing his trademark bluejeans and black sweater, Olivier, as his supporters call him, lunged into the “France from above” embodied by Sarkozy and greedy CEOs while hammering the “social-liberal” left for its failure to stand its ground and defend the “France from below.”

“What is missing is a left as comfortable with itself as Sarkozy is comfortable with being from the right,” he told an enthusiastic young crowd of several hundred.

In essence, with the new party Besancenot is trying to close the gap between the tiny membership of the LCR and its improved electoral showings (around 5 percent in the last two presidential polls) and, even more so, his standing as one of the most popular French politicians on the left. He was even recently invited on a popular Sunday afternoon family entertainment program, a decision that elicited some grumbling from old-timers about the “people-ization” of Besancenot. But he is adamant that this is not about himself: “It will not be Besancenot’s party. There is something deep going on; people are willing to get back to political action, here and abroad,” he told me before the Lille meeting in a small room plastered with Soviet-style fliers heralding the new party and the LCR’s main slogan, “Our lives are worth more than their profits.”

In Germany, Britain, Italy, Denmark, Spain and Portugal, far-left groups have joined broader leftist coalitions, some of which have won parliamentary seats. But in those countries they have tended to drift toward the traditional left, whereas Besancenot’s objective is to remain firmly anchored to the far left. And while Die Linke (the Left Party) in Germany or Rifondazione Comunista (Communist Refoundation Party) in Italy are led by former Socialists and/or Communists and professional politicians, France presents a drastically different picture. In addition to the postman Besancenot, the far left’s main leaders are peasant activist José Bové and former bank employee Arlette Laguiller.

Laguiller broke the glass ceiling in 1995 when she obtained 5.7 percent of the vote in the presidential election, more than doubling her score from three previous attempts. In 2002 Besancenot ran for the first time and approached that performance, contributing to a historic defeat for the Socialist candidate. In last year’s poll, with leftist voters massively throwing their support behind Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal to avoid such an outcome, the far left receded–except for Besancenot. With 4.1 percent of the ballot, he emerged as its clear leader, garnering twice as many votes as not only Laguiller but also the Communist Party candidate.

The free fall of the French Communist Party, long a powerhouse that attracted around 20 percent of the votes at each national election between 1945 and 1979, is the most notable political development of the past twenty years. Rather than join the Socialist Party, a sizable number of its voters swung to the far right and helped propel the National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen into the big league of national politics. But in recent years, the “left of the left” has been able to lure some of those disaffected Communists.

In addition to this changing of the guard on the left, there are some distinctively French reasons behind the resilience of its revolutionary left. One is a deeply rooted tradition of vigorous social movements. It’s no wonder France is known as the country of strikes and demonstrations; since a barometer was set up by the CSA polling institute in 1995 to measure public reaction to such movements, a large majority of the French have offered support for most of them.

In addition, the French Socialist Party, despite its years in power under former President François Mitterrand and former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, has not embraced the market economy as fully as have its siblings in Germany and Britain. With good reason: according to a 2005 poll taken by the GlobeScan institute, only 36 percent of the French agree with the claim that “the free enterprise system and free market economy is the best system on which to base the future of the world,” compared with 66 percent of the British and 65 percent of the Germans.

This, however, does not explain another French mystery: the durability of the Trotskyists compared with their Communist or Maoists rivals. The obvious answer is that Maoism and orthodox Communism were directly linked to repressive regimes in Beijing and Moscow–and thus were the collateral victims of their disgrace. By contrast, Trotskyism always portrayed itself as a victim of Stalinism and, as such, retained the aura of romanticism attached to an unfulfilled dream. Moreover, its avant-garde dimension lured numerous sympathizers in the heady days after the May ’68 upheaval, several of whom went on to become public figures: politicians such as Jospin and Pierre Moscovici and intellectuals such as journalist Edwy Plenel. Although they have long renounced their youthful engagement, their trajectory bestows on Trotskyism the kind of cultural prestige so dear to the French.

Two of the three branches of French Trotskyism–Lutte Ouvrière (Workers’ Struggle) and the Workers’ Party–still hew to the old ideology. The LCR, however, has strived to embody a more modern incarnation since its founding. Over the years, it has embraced feminism, environmentalism and, lately, the global justice movement. And while this multiple advocacy has somewhat blurred its image, it is proving to be an asset in the eyes of the new generation. The LCR has doubled its membership since 2002, and most of its recruits are young. A November 2007 IFOP poll shows that while Besancenot would obtain 7 percent in a presidential election, the figure climbs to 12 percent among those born between 1977 and 1982.

Sylvain Pattieu, the 29-year-old head of the LCR’s list for the recent municipal elections in a working-class Paris neighborhood, is a case in point. A history professor, he got acquainted with the LCR through the anti-racist organization Ras-le-Front. Since becoming a member in 1997, he has continued to be involved in trade union and global justice activities. “I couldn’t go to the Communist Party because of [its associations with] the USSR, and I found Lutte Ouvrière too rigid. The LCR was both radical and open-minded,” he told me.

In addition to becoming younger, the LCR has become closer to the average population sociologically. After years of recruiting mostly among teachers and civil servants, its membership among the working class has recently surged, shedding its intellectual image. Those trends are especially telling at a time when the membership of the Socialist Party is becoming more bourgeois and the Communist Party’s is aging.

Henri Weber, a former LCR militant who is now a Socialist official, does not buy the face-lift argument. He claims that his old organization still functions with the same mind-set and ideology as in the 1960s and ’70s. To be sure, the LCR recently ousted a faction that advocated an alliance with the traditional left, and its website still claims that only a frontal assault can undo the capitalist system, warning that “the clash is inevitable; we must prepare for it.” The site intones that “between two legitimacies, two powers…antagonistic social interests, coexistence cannot last. Force will decide.”

Besancenot, the son of a physics teacher and a school psychologist who joined the LCR’s youth wing in the late 1980s, uses a distinctively different vocabulary. In his writings and in speeches, he steers clear of loaded expressions such as class warfare, armed revolution or dictatorship of the proletariat. “I don’t define myself as Trotskyist; I’d rather use ‘contemporary revolutionary,'” he offered when I asked him to define himself. “I don’t have a ready-made recipe to bring about a better society. Revolution is not a dogma laid out in a Little Red Book.”

This pragmatism explains why no name has been chosen for the new party and why it will not be affiliated with the Fourth International, a cornerstone of Trotskyist identity. The name and platform are to be decided at a constitutional assembly slated for late this year, which will mark the culmination of a nationwide series of meetings at the local and regional level.

“We are ready to turn a page from our history,” Besancenot told the Lille audience. “We don’t want to be an elitist, avant-garde movement wasting its time with philosophical discussions lasting until three in the morning.”

Alain Krivine, an LCR founder and one of those endless debaters, swears he will not miss the all-nighters arguing about Stalin’s crimes and Trotsky’s greatness. “Communism doesn’t mean anything to the new generation. You can’t just go on talking about this,” he told me in his office at the headquarters of the LCR, located in the working-class Paris suburb of Montreuil. “We have tried many times before to create a party but we failed. This time, we feel the situation has never been as favorable, with vibrant social movements and strong electoral results.”

Not to mention the election of Sarkozy, an avowed neoliberal who enjoyed record popularity in the wake of his election last spring but who has seen his poll numbers plunge in recent months. Most analysts point to the contrast between the ostentatious display of his private life, first and foremost his public affair with and marriage to model-cum-singer Carla Bruni, and the struggles of the average French, as the main reason. Besancenot, however, is convinced something deeper–and more promising to the left–is afoot.

“I don’t give a hoot about Carla Bruni,” he told the audience in Lille. “The truth is Sarkozy’s policies are exasperating a growing number of people. And here is some news: he doesn’t even have the means to implement them because the public coffers are empty, so even the France from above is beginning to smell the coffee.”

Besancenot’s denunciations of the excesses of capitalism; his advocacy of higher salaries, free education and cheap housing; and his support for Palestine and Chechnya are popular beyond the far left. But when it comes to defending the rights of undocumented immigrants, he is at odds with the feelings of large segments of the working class, who have been receptive to Le Pen’s “France for the French” mantra. A more calculating politician would probably have avoided this issue, but Besancenot told the mostly white crowd in Lille that “a leftist doesn’t hesitate” when it comes to defending the disenfranchised.

Krivine acknowledges that seeking out recruits by, as he puts it, “telling people, ‘We’re the ones who defend Negroes and fags. Got a problem with that?'” is probably not what political gurus would recommend. But he argues that not doing this would betray a central tenet of the movement. Besides, he noted, the integrity embodied by the LCR and Besancenot was a prized asset in an era of low public trust in politicians.

In addition to those ideological dilemmas, political scientist Vincent Tiberj argues that the party will face three major obstacles: the fractious nature of the far left (Lutte Ouvrière has already announced that it will not join, claiming that the new formation appears ready to jettison Marxism, Leninism and Trotskyism); the volatile nature of its electorate; and its lack of a truly national base, since the LCR has generally been present only in several large cities and suburbs, barely registering in rural areas and small towns. (The LCR did score its best performance ever during a round of municipal elections in March, with 109 of its 200 lists getting more than 5 percent of the vote and and twenty-nine lists garnering more than 10 percent. Most notably, it performed well not only in working-class suburbs and industrial areas but also in several midsize towns.)

“They don’t have a culture of consensus, they have a culture of difference,” Tiberj told me. “And let’s not forget that a sizable number of their voters cast their ballots to vent and not because they believe it will bring about the revolution.”

Success will indeed mean convincing voters that the party actually wants to govern and not just protest. But it may ultimately depend on Besancenot. To be sure, all LCR senior officials, first and foremost Besancenot, sing the praises of collective leadership. But they know better. As the veteran Krivine admitted, “We may not agree with the personalization of politics, but we use it.” And there lies the rub. Besancenot told me he would not run again for president and seems genuinely eager to recede into the shadows.

After concluding his one-hour speech in Lille with a passionate call for “a socialism for the twenty-first century,” Besancenot did not bask in the cheers of the audience as any politician would. He joined the local LCR leaders on the podium to sing the “Internationale,” his face looking down, his right fist softly clenched in the air and his left hand tucked in his jeans pocket. He then deftly avoided the swarm of well-wishers and disappeared through a back door into the foggy northern night.