Thursday, October 23, 2008

In the Ring with OB

23 October

As the economic crisis deepens, and the NPA moves closer to its actual founding congress, the swirl of media attention that his lifted Olivier Besancenot into a  prominence unheard of for many years on the far-left shows no sign of abating. Indeed le Monde seems to regard him as a ‘hook’ for its series of online interviews en directe and has been prominently displaying the notice of his participation in the series next Monday, complete with photo, in its online edition for the past few days.

But what is the real communicative value of these encounters between a serious revolutionary party leader and the mainstream (read: bourgeois, infotainment, commercial, sensationalized) media? Let’s take as an exemplary case Tuesday’s 15-minutes-of-fame for OB at the microphones of BFMtv, a relatively new and small (I think— anyone who knows more about the vagaries of French TV here, please weigh in) cable network. French speakers can find the footage on the new (and quite user-friendly, unlike the old LCR site) NPA site at, but for the rest I have prepared the following little recap of the proceedings.

The ‘host’ of the show, Jean-Jacques Bourdin, launches the exchange by asking OB what he thinks of Sister Emmanuelle, famously known to the media as the 'French Mother Teresa,' who has just died. OB makes a respectful acknowledgement of her work. “But you, you’re not a believer,” says JJB, as OB explains that no, he isn’t, but he finds some common cause with her work to relieve the poor, and plunges into an analysis of the shortage of public housing, and the decline in social security. JJB looks uneasy for a bit, but then interrupts him to ask if he doesn’t think Sarkozy is handling things pretty well. This sets off a long critique of the French government's bail-out plan, and a call for a new “service public bancaire,” a publically owned and managed financial sector, which is the core of NPA’s counter-proposal.

JJB breaks in on OB here to ask, smiling, “Are you still being spied on?” (Background: OB has been in court this week pursuing his complaint against the French CEO of the Taser-gun manufacturing firm, who has admitted gathering personal data on OB. He and six co-defendants may have violated privacy laws by supplying privileged financial data, taking  personal photos, even recording the daily schedules of OB's small children.} OB tries to establish his objection to deploying the Taser without a full study of alleged incidents—150 deaths in the US, according to Amnesty International—but JJB interrupts him with questions like, “Who do you think did the spying? Did you see them?” and “’Under investigation’ doesn’t mean he’s guilty, does it?”

As OB recites the cautionary practices of other EU countries on the Taser question, JJB abruptly breaks in: “Is Jean-Marc Rouillon a member of the NPA?”  (Background: Rouillon 20-some years ago, in an act of radical-left adventurism, murdered a French CEO, and had served 22 years, 10 in solitary, before being released on parole. He was just reincarcerated two weeks ago when he gave a magazine interview, a parole violation, and refused to express remorse, a political land-mine. During his brief liberty he did indeed join the Marseilles NPA, though only after the committee required him to renounce violence as a tactic. OB—against the advice of many in the NPA—has stoutly defended his right as a former prisoner to exercise his “rights as a citizen to engage in activist politics.”} OB notes wearily that he has been asked about this in the media every day for the past ten days, but JJB is tenacious: “But you understand that he didn’t show any remorse?” “Do you think armed struggle is justified?”

OB finally takes a high-speed exit from Rouillon into an elaboration of democratic socialist principles; JJB is non-plussed for a moment, but manages to break in with “You like soccer—what do you say to those soccer fans who booed the ‘Marseillaise?’” (Background: This happened at a recent match between the national teams of France and Tunisia, played in France. President Sarkozy has threatened to personally suspend any future match where such a thing should happen, though no one is quite sure how he will do it.)  OB managed to suggest that the entire world of professional soccer was “suffering from racism and nationalism,” but not before JJB asked him if he sang the “Marseillaise” at games. “No, but I don’t boo.” “Do you know the words?” OB, with a master’s degree in history, allowed himself to smile, and remarked, “I know a few things about history—and it’s a beautiful revolutionary song.”

On a final note, after asking OB if he owned any stock, and if he gave coins to street-beggars, JJB read from Steven Erlanger’s NY Times profile of OB published last month, the part where Erlanger suggests that OB resembles Tin-Tin. OB replied that he and Erlanger had had an interesting conversation about the financial crisis, and was preparing to elaborate, but—alas—time was up.

There is something undeniably comical about such an exercise as this interview—JJB  could play himself on Saturday Night Live without rehearsing. And the recurrent image of OB, lifting up the conversation and setting it back on the tracks again and again, is consistent with the overtones of David-and-Goliath that are part of his allure. But he and the French public will be forced to wade through a vast morass of such sludge in order to explain and learn, respectively, what this new party is actually about. There may be no other way to reach a public, and the times are too perilous not to try. Maybe OB even enjoys playing Muhammed Ali to JJB’s Sonny Liston, though one senses he would rather spar with someone of comparable skill.



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