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.