Letter From Lille: Echoes of '68
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.