Monday, October 13, 2008

Olivier Besancenot and the Besancenot-Effect

11 October

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 an important one.

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 and 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. “Doesn’t that always make you even 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 true story to the emperor. 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 publique 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 being Olivier Besancenot, not glorious, just a very big job. 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.



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