Vive la Revolution?
In addition to factory shutdowns and sequestrations, a movement of university professors and researchers protesting a reform of their status has unfolded since February, with little input from trade unions. As a result their actions have taken decidedly original forms. For instance, a group of professors from a Paris university are giving "classes" to subway passengers. In front of the Paris City Hall, academics, students and sympathizers have been walking in circles nonstop since March 24 in what they call the "infinite circle of the obstinate." They are taking a page from Italian filmmaker and leftist militant Nanni Moretti, who in 2002 organized girotondi around official buildings to call for justice and denounce the government of Silvio Berlusconi. Professors and students have also held multiple marathon public readings of La Princesse de Clèves, a classic of seventeenth-century romantic literature written by Madame de Lafayette, a tongue-in-cheek response to Sarkozy, who last year tartly remarked that he found reading the book a drag and thought it a waste of time for those preparing to enter government service.
Another original form of action are the "wild picnics" staged by activists, who enter a supermarket, unfold a table and begin eating from the shelves until they are ousted by security personnel. Their goal is to protest the high food prices asked by large distribution chains. The association behind those monthly happenings is close to the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA), launched a few months ago by a smallish Trotskyite group in an effort to become the standard-bearer of the far left. Riding the coattails of its young and charismatic leader, Olivier Besancenot, who splits his time between his political activities and working as a postman, the NPA is having a field day, thanks to Lehman Brothers. CEOs have indeed become fair game for most of the French, including Sarkozy, who routinely rails against "gangster thugs."
Ingrid Hayes, a member of the NPA's executive committee, explains that its model of social upheaval is the recent general strike over wages in Guadeloupe and Martinique, in the French Antilles, which ended up forcing the government to compromise with workers. "We know we can't replicate it here for now, but this is what we are seeking," Hayes says.
Besancenot spends a lot of time in factories across the country lending support to strikers and never misses an opportunity to remind his audiences that he himself was on a picket line for several weeks to oppose the privatization of the national postal service. This has struck a nerve among unions, which see factories as their turf. François Chérèque, head of the CFDT, lashed out at the NPA, claiming the party was behaving a "little bit like vultures." NPA officials counter that they are not encroaching on union territory but merely offering bolder responses to the situation.
In broader terms, the party views the social unrest as a quintessentially political moment that deserves a political response--not merely an isolated strike or a street demonstration. "Trade unions are not opening perspectives, and this is not good enough for the more combative sectors," explains Hayes. "We are mindful of the independence of the unions, but we reject the notion of a waterproof separation between the political and the social arenas."
Besancenot, who has replaced the fading Communist Party as the leading force of the "left of the left," is also benefiting from the constant squabbling and weak leadership of the Socialist Party. In this regard, he sees eye to eye with Sarkozy, who is following a strategy that bears a striking resemblance to the cynical game played by his predecessor François Mitterrand twenty-five years ago. At that time, the Socialist president quietly encouraged the emergence of Jean-Marie Le Pen's far-right National Front in an effort to weaken his conservative enemies. Just as Mitterrand warned against the rebirth of the dark forces of fascism but profited from it politically, Sarkozy is denouncing the looming danger of a violent ultraleft as a way to cripple the Socialists. He has, for instance, associated Besancenot with the violent incidents that surrounded the NATO summit in early April. His government also dismantled a group of leftist anarchists who, they alleged, perpetrated a series of crude explosive attacks on the overhead power cables of railway lines. To be sure, the postman-politician fiercely rants against Sarkozy. But at the same time, Besancenot relishes the publicity. "We won't complain that we are polarizing the political situation," says Hayes.
While the NPA is quick to dampen any expectation that it will crack the 10 percent ceiling for the first time in the June elections for the European Parliament (Besancenot received just above 4 percent in the 2007 presidential poll), the party is obviously banking on the tense social climate to help its performance. While those elections are traditionally marked by low turnout, they can be a steppingstone. In the 1984 European elections, Le Pen garnered almost 11 percent of the vote, the first time he had reached double digits. He would go on to match this performance in nearly all ensuing elections, reaching an apex in the presidential poll of 2002, when he obtained 17 percent and beat the Socialist candidate to reach the second round (where he was trounced by the Gaullist candidate, Jacques Chirac). Ironically, the aging far-right leader is leaving the political scene, bequeathing his nasty blend of nationalist and racist discourse to his daughter Marine. She has tried to tap into the social discontent by reviving the populist stances that enabled the National Front to seduce part of the lower middle class over the years. Some observers predict that the far right will actually end up gaining if violent acts multiply and intensify. In this case, Sarkozy certainly hopes to capture their votes as he did in 2007 and emulate de Gaulle, who was eventually able to turn the tide in 1968 by riding a wave of outrage over the paralysis of the country.
Sarkozy might not like classic French literature, but he knows his contemporary history: it took another thirteen years after the May '68 events before a Socialist became president.