Friday, November 7, 2008


November 7

He is young but battle-tested, an eloquent and inspirational orator, a visionary ready to open a new chapter in his nation's political history. He is ... Olivier Besancenot in 2012? Well, maybe not, but from where I sit it is interesting to compare the careers and messages of these two meteoric and somewhat improbable political leaders.

Let me first note that the Obama phenomenon continues to resonate through French political life. At 80%, after all, French voters were prepared to give him a margin somewhat higher than Hawaii's. Media coverage has been intense and uniformly effusive. This is all the more poignant as the Socialist party faithful have just voted provisionally for Ségolène Royal over several even less inspiring figures to carry on as party leader. Meanwhile the citizenry and the editorialists on all sides are asking bluntly and rather plaintively, where is our Obama? 

Obamania was somewhat less in evidence at last night's first big NPA Paris rally, though Besancenot's remarks on that question are worth quoting: "It would be foolish and sectarian," he said, "to overlook the historic importance of this opening of the American political process to a black man whose race would have excluded him in an earlier time. But is would be equally foolish and sectarian to imagine that Obama or any leader of the Democratic Party can bring about the sweeping changes needed to rescue Capitalism from its crisis." And that about sums it up: the interest and frank admiration for Obama's success are genuine and profound, but as every comrade I spoke with was well aware, Obama was the chosen candidate of the financial class, and his job is to get the system running again, not to change it in any fundamental way.

Besancenot and the NPA, on the other hand, are riding the crest of a powerful wave, and the impending shipwreck of the Socialist Party will only add force to the new party. Besancenot delivered a fiery exegesis of the crisis, which he resolutely sees as the "inevitable" conclusion of a long series of crises which as he said are "systemic" to Capitalism. He spoke for more than an hour to an auditorium full of shouting, cheering, laughing supporters, several thousand of them. Preceding him on the program were a series of quite moving speakers from labor movements, a pair of undocumented workers whose descriptions of the sans-papiers struggle drew the loudest applause, and a teenaged student shouting in kidspeak--"v'là!" Besancenot came on with a fervid, almost angry denunciation of the capitalist system, but as he relaxed into his speech, he found more connection to his audience, with his distinctive mix of ironic humor and pedagogy. "It doesn't matter whether you call it revolutionary socialism, ecosocialism, communism, or a democratic workers' state," he said. "But it needs to be a completely new system."After he finished, and the audience was on its feet, clapping rhythmically, OB and the emcee led the audience in a "song," and I have to confess that the sound and sight of a thousand militants et militantes, their fists upraised, singing the Internationale in its original tongue, left me more than a little moved.  

Does that mean that OB and Marxism are 'right,' and Obama and the Democrats are 'wrong'? Three days after his election and seventy-four before his inauguration, is Obama already headed for the dustbin of history? Well, let's not be hasty. Economist that I'm not, I have a sense that a well-managed operation like Obama's may have a good chance of pulling the system together and restoring confidence, and for purely selfish reasons I sure hope they can. More broadly, I can imagine a few more good cycles in the American economy (even if it can only be done by borrowing even more against our childrens' future, and their children's ...). America's size and dominance of many sorts give it more room to maneuver through a crisis whose magnitude is still unknown.

But--to go deeper into treacherous waters--I wonder if France's economy isn't more vulnerable, for reasons of size, to such a debt-driven recovery strategy. As OB and many others have noted, France and much of Europe were heading into recession before the financial crisis, and have already experienced a lot of social tension because of the shrinking government safety net. If Sarkozy isn't able to fend off a prolonged and deep recession, the anti-capitalist logic expounded so clearly by OB and the NPA will sound more--to use OB's word--inévitable to French ears than to American.

Would it not then, indulgent reader, be a scenario of World-Historic grandeur if in 2012, they were both running for president: Obama reaffirmed and reelected by a resilient and grateful America; and Besancenot, in a France devastated by relentless recession, unemployment, and despair, leading the French left to a historic and revolutionary victory ...? 


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