Sunday, October 12, 2008

Besancenot on the Stump

The following is a guest post from Brent Whelan:

Last night I met the phénomène Olivier Besancenot face to face. I greeted M. Besancenot, shook his hand, and then watched him fire up a packed hall of 500 shouting, cheering supporters. It was the full Besancenot-effect, and I came away thinking that history may have some chapters left after all, and this man may write one of them.

The meeting took place in Évreux, an obscure little one-street town on the eastern edge of Normandy, at the Zenith, a large movie theater rented out for the event. When I arrived OB was standing in front of the theater chatting with a few supporters, while several camera crews circled around him and four burly handlers eyed him protectively. He is a small man, fine-featured and impeccable in pullover and jeans; he could be a real heart-throb if he wasn't so serious.

Politely excusing himself from his supporters, he turned to the micros and proceeded to give one of his unbelievably rapid-fire interviews, every word precise and logical, like a prof de lycée
giving a lecture to his class—double speed. Having seen a number of such interviews on video, I expected the speed, but not the emphasis—even in this dispassionate and expository mode he makes every word felt. But he also maintained a cool, business-like demeanor.

When the interview ended, I made my move. I went up to him, told him I wished to greet him, shook his hand, and remarked that I had come from the United States to hear him speak . This remark must have sounded particularly absurd here in Évreux, and the only response I got was a quizzically upraised eyebrow as his handlers spirited him into the hall.

I went in, grabbed a spot and watched as every seat filled with people of all ages and conditions, a huge event for this little town. The program was carefully choreographed to reflect the NPA's desire to form a broad coalition of people from many movements outside the traditional labor base of the Trotskyists. OB came out and sat with 5 or 6 others in armchairs at the front of the hall. Each of the others spoke briefly about her or his personal activism: an anti-nuclear environmentalist, a nurse/labor organizer, a former Socialist Party organizer, a member of a support team for undocumented workers, and—most movingly—a hoarse auto worker who had come directly from the picket line at the Renault factory, where several hundred workers are losing their jobs "so the shareholders can have their dividends," as he put it.

When OB finally stood up to speak, he seemed quite literally to arise from this collectivity of bruised and embattled citizens. As he warmed to his speech, a quite different side of him began to emerge: animated, even radiant, a man who loved being here, speaking to his people. He was funny and charming, this OB, ridiculing Sarkozy and Christine Lagarde, the finance minister, pulling scraps of paper from his blue jeans to read excerpts from their speeches. "Ne pa—ni—quez—pas," ("Don't panic") he mockingly quoted from the overreactive president's advice to his constituents. "Doesn't that always make you more anxious?" And he made one-liners out of the cabinet's substitute phrases—e.g. "negative growth" or "prolonged period of soft economic performance"—in place of the banished word "recession." This was OB's bravura performance as the "mailman from Neuilly," a folk opera about the local boy who scores first on the exams and outwits the profs, and uses his gifts to tell the people's real true story. The hall loved it, and loved him, and you could see in his shining eyes that he loved us back.

At a certain moment, though, this witty and sarcastic OB turned into a quite different speaker, this one angry, insistent, prophetic. He denounced the greed of the few, and the magnitude of the profits they "suck like blood from the economy," leaving "pas un radis" (not a red cent) for healthcare and education and social solidarity. Again and again he pointed to lay-offs and unemployment, and demanded decent-paying jobs for everyone able to work. Finally he called for nationalizing the entire finance sector, not just the "rotten fruit" but the whole orchard, a "service public financier."

I could try to itemize the many changes OB rang on these themes—he spoke for nearly an hour without a moment's lapse or lull—but I'll just say that it was galvanizing. All over the hall teenagers, distinguished-looking older people, people of all sorts were laughing and cheering and shouting out, and quite a few rose to their feet in tribute as he finished.

We were warned that the meeting would end promptly, as OB was tired and had to go to work the next day—he really does deliver the mail in Neuilly. As his handlers slowly moved him out the door and toward the parking lot, I got another close look at him and saw yet another side of this remarkable man, no longer lit by klieg lights, no longer radiant. His face was sweaty, and he was a bit slumped, clearly drained from the performance he had just turned in. He seemed as small as his actual size, an ordinary person like the rest of us, shouldering an enormous load. It no longer looked easy, much less glorious, being Olivier Besancenot. He is the lifeblood of this new party and the movements it embraces. Without him there would be no party, and everyone knows it. So his handlers gently detached him from his admirers, eased him into the back of a sedan, and drove off with him, to rest, to prepare to do battle another day.


Anonymous said...

" you could see in his shining eyes that he loved us back...this man may write a new chapter of was galvanizing..etc "

The author has obviously fallen under the charm and fascination of his subject.

Anyone with a little history background cannot help the parallel with the ecstatic prose coming from some commentators returning from the NSDAP meetings in Nurnberg in the 30's.

The scale is different of course, but the lack of professional distance, the fascination for an emerging populist leader, the willingness to kiss the hand holding the whip, are all too similar.

Imagine the same post written after a meeting by JL Le Pen.
It would immediately be labelled as definetely fascist...

brent said...

I'm sorry if, in trying à la 'new journalism' to speak for and from within the enthusiastic crowd, I have offended alain q's sense of professional/analytic distance. I did intend some irony in describing the OB-effect as a 'folk opera.' On the other hand I do think it's possible-one can't know at the time-that there is something of historic importance at work here. And one doesn't have to go back to 1933 (or LePen) to find parallels: the one that most suggested itself to me was the Obama rallies in 2007-early 08. On the whole I think 'populist' phenomena should not be held suspect a priori, and the term 'fascist' is best used to describe a certain type of nationalist/militarist mobilization, of which I detect no traces in the NPA.

Unknown said...

Using charisma and leadership as a rhetorical mean is one thing. Content is another. Obama is a presidential candidate with a programm. Besancenot said he was nothing though he is everything for this new formation, while carrying no political plan except fear, uncertainty, doubt.

Besancenot would certainly have made a great medieval preacher or a even a good 17th century moralist. He'll have no problem in the coming years finding enough disillusioned and angry people to listen to him. Though those who'll ask the question "what to we do tomorrow?" will certainly have to find a solid answer somewhere else.

David in Setouchi said...

Alain Q : Did you just compare Besancenot to a Nazi? The comments are just starting and here comes the Goodwyn Point...

Pierre : did you just say that Obama has a platform and Besancenot didn't?
Are you sure you paid attention to both? (as much as I like Obama, his platform is at best shaky, which does not mean I think he cannot be a good president). Besancenot has a clear platform even if I admit that some of his ideas can only work in the framework of a "world government".

Well, your reactions show something: Besancenot scares a lot of people in France.
From the Right for obvious reasons.
But from the Left too as he is the future of the Left, when the PS is its past (only the Socialists haven't realized that yet) as well as the gravedigger of the "traditional" communists.

brent said...

Pierre: You might look at the Oct 8 issue of Rouge, in which Besancenot calls for
nationalization of the entire financial sector and creation of a 'service public banquaire';
increase in monthly salaries of E300, establishing a minimum of E1500;
mandatory worker representation in the management of businesses;
and increased taxes on corporate profits.
And that's just one article on a specific topic--the immediate financial crisis. While you may not agree with these measures--and I'm not sure I do either--one can hardly fault OB for not offering specific proposals, toward a positive redefinition of social relations. To overlook the actual content of his rather transparent communications, and summarize them inaccurately as "fear, uncertainty, and doubt," does not, in my view, advance the debate in any useful way.

Anonymous said...

Of course I didn't compare OB with a nazi..

I just noted the similarities in the fascination populist politicians seemed to inspire to some journalists across the years and historical periods.

Really, the great galvanizing leader "who loves us too " is something I had not seen in writing since "1984"...

David in Setouchi said...

Thing is every single popular politician is like that, that's how they become popular, hence the comparison with the Nazi being quite ill-advised.

Anonymous said...

David : I don't think the Right is afraid of OB. I think they are using OB and its NPA to weaken the Socialists, as Mitterand used JMLe Pen to split the Right.

Brent : I don't think OB " economic " proposal have the slightest chance to be implemented. They would quickly amount to France shutting itself from the rest of the world and becoming the new Albania of Europe.

Besides, extreme measures of this sort call for extreme means of implementations, spoliations , ever increa&sing coercition , severely restricting public liberties, all in the name of the common good, of course.

Revolutions start with calls for increased Fraternity and usually end up with public hangings of " enemies of the People".

Anonymous said...


Once again , it is not specifically a comparison with the Nazis. I hope you can understand that.

I could have used as another example of fascination for a strong charismatic leader, the writings of a good part of the French intelligentsia regarding Chairman Mao and his Cultural Revolution.

Do you feel better this way ?

Unknown said...

Brent, Congratulations on stirring up so much controversy. To put in my two cents, I think that Besancenot's politics are Manichaean, as is common among populists of both right and left. His villain has a name--Big Capital, Finance Capital--and he runs against it relentlessly. His platform is aimed at bringing it to heel. In this respect, Obama is quite different. He does not have a villain. Some of his critics fault him for this. He is too ecumenical, they say. If you want an American parallel for Besancenot, I'd think of Palin, who is the very soul of our angry white right populism come to life.

brent said...

Alain: as regards implementation, you are surely right that the NPA program is not for next week, or next year (though current events suggest that the pace of change is not always predictable). But as many are saying, both within the NPA and outside, the present system has brought concurrent crises not only financial, but social, environmental, military and humanitarian of remarkable scope. While those in power try to patch it together and have another go, wouldn't it be prudent to be considering not just a series of expensive bail-outs but a complete overhaul?

Art: There is indeed a certain absolutism to the NPA--that's its trump card, I would say, in the face of the 'moral relativism' and compromise and accommodation that have become the modus vivendi of the PS. And yes, Obama is ideologically much closer kin to, say, DSK than to OB, though Obama and OB share the unusual combination of cooly intellectual personalities and riveting rhetorical styles . But Palin?! That intellectual midget?! No, the only place on the right that might possibly compare is the Libertarian Party, but I would claim far deeper intellectual roots for the NPA.

Anonymous said...

brent w,

I agree with you that OB generates strong empathy, and this is in big part what makes him attractive. I already commented that he comes accross as one of the rare politicians with whom chatting over a beer would seem natural to me.

Furthermore, recently you can see in the media how the financial crisis gives even more ammunition to the new left (OB, Clémentine Autain, etc). However, I don't think OB's platform has any chance of ever going through. As long OB stays in "revolt-mode" and attacks the evils of capitalism, sympathy will be high. But "Anti-capitalism" isn't exactly something that's achieved by passing a couple laws. This means a total transformation of the system. OB might be have a high sympathy capital (not joke intended), but I don't think that it will be enough for the French to follow him on this road.

Leo said...

Brent and Alain:

"you could see in his shining eyes that he loved us back...this man may write a new chapter of was galvanizing..etc "

just replace his and he by her and she and this reminds us more of Segolene than of Adolf...

As for his ideas, the problem is not that there will not be a majority to impplement them, but that they were implemented once. We all know how it ended. So no indeed, the Right is not afraid. I'm not even sure the Socialists are, but the PCF be better ready to sell the Colonel Fabien building. Besancenot is finishing Miterrand's task.

Unknown said...

I'm with Leo! Good comment.

brent said...

Yeah, I'm with Leo too--sort of. And you notice that Ségo and OB both bring their performances to 'the Zenith,' a few differences notwithstanding.
But history rarely repeats itself verbatim, and recall that in 82-83 the capitalist economy was rebounding from a small slump, and Reagan/Thatcher-style 'liberalism' was embarked on its Long March. Mitterand's experiment was in that sense woefully out of phase. Will capitalism recover gracefully from its current 'small slump'? If so, I accept Leo's prognosis. If not, all bets are off.

Leo said...

Brent, the 82-83 rebound was not from a small slump, but from a deep crisis triggered by the 1973 oil shock.
Public policies were mired in the glorious post-war days (here les 30 glorieuses) and had failed to adapt to a new environment. It had been a kind of slow motion economic crash. Stagflation and skyrocketting unemployment.
Who still remembers that in France, it increased from 500k to 2 Million between 1973 and 1981?

So here came Reagan and Thatcher peddling the Hayek snake oil. A little historical perspective is needed to understand why they were successful.

In both countries, public morale was low and they needed any sense of leadership to get them moving. In the USA, it was the Iran hostage crisis and gas lines which were ascribed (rightly or wrongly) to Jimmy Carter. In the UK, the economic situation was terrible: just remember that this one powerful country had a standard of living inferior to today's Portugal. Both were crying for a fresh approach and in such a context, anything new could prove better than just repeating the past. Indeed people did not notice they traded a bankrupt ideology for a faulty new one. For twenty years it did produce good economic results albeit with fatal flaws: increasing income disparities and a public realm lying fallow (just look at the sorry state of public infrastructures in both the US and the UK).
If you factor into that outdated monetary policies reminding us of Orwell's Animal Farm head pig (Price inflation bad! Asset inflation good!) and the permanent state of war fostered by successive US Adminsitrations, the system was bound to burst.

Unfortunately here, Mitterand's recipes were even worse: not even more of the same but rather reversing to failed policies of yesteryear. Coming back to your post what's really striking with Becancenot's proposals is how much they mimic those Mitterand implemented.
Even if I forget his "revolutionnary" stance (Che Guevarra, "c'est la lutte finale", mixing with an unrepentant far-leftist murderer), I just cannot accept anything he says as of practical value. Which leaves him but with his populist and 'gendre idéal" appeal.

Where I'm with you is that capitalism may recover only by understanding that the welfare of the people is its ultimate goal.
Otherwise we are in for trouble and the populists of all ilk starting with Besancenot will have a field day.

I'm rather optimistic. I see a lot of positive signs: a lot of younger economists are now playing the role intellectuals played after WWII and are coming up with policy prescriptions which are taken on board by politicians. And politicians themselves are using their natural coat turning skills to question the wisdom of what they believed the previous day. (No finger pointing here).

We will see.

Anonymous said...

A small contribution from France to your debates.

Regarding the programm and ideas of Besancenot, let's, as leo invite us, take a very small historical perspective. Not far away... Just a few monthes back,in the last two french presidential campaigns.

OB claimed that privatisations of public services in France (both made by left and right wing parties), will lead us to dramatic consequences. At the times, everyone laughed...
See now what happened, let's say, in England, about railroads, or elsewhere (Italy ?), about postal services, or phone company, ...
>>>back to nationalisations because the quality of services are so low (even with a hight deathrate for railroads in UK), that it's the only solution, even for the right ! (but, in the meantime, the private sector who bought public services, bought them for nothing to the Public, and now, sell it with high proffits...).

So,part of Besancenot's predictions have already happened and been applied... but not in France whot will not continue to privatise postal services, national press agency, the remains of french television, et.

Who is out of it's time then ?