Tuesday, February 3, 2009

From the Anti-Capitalist Trenches: a summary of my NPA adventures, fall 2008

January, 2009

[The following article is distilled from my posts in October and November, 2008. I edit and post it here for the convenience of anyone who wants to read highlights of that encounter in a more sequential format. As the NPA moves toward its founding congress on February 8-9, 2009, I can only hope the party and how it formed will inspire some interest.]

From the Anti-Capitalist Trenches

My first encounter with the Nouveau Parti Anti-Capitaliste (NPA) took place in a little Turkish restaurant called the Trojan Horse, not far from the Place de la Bastille. I had already visited the party’s city-wide headquarters at the bookstore La Brêche (the Breach) a few days earlier, which is how I found out about the meeting at the Cheval de Troie. After losing my way from Ledru-Rollin, I walk in a half-hour late to find a social gathering in progress.  Twenty-five or 30 people fill all the tables in the front room, eating and drinking. It looks like a boho birthday party in TriBeCa, dark, with loud chatter over a drone of Turkish music.  Except that just as I walk in and feel my way to a chair in back, a fellow stands up and brings the “business part of the meeting” to order.

Seated around the room is a visually remarkable little group of people evenly distributed in age from roughly 25 to 75, not dressed up but well dressed, attractive, and remarkably—I have to say it—petit bourgeois. It’s an informal meeting, with a presider but no agenda, and it soon turns into a series of testimonials, as one after another of the core group rises to speak.  Patrick leads off: a bespectacled bureaucrat and radical labor organizer in his thirties, he could just as easily be an econ grad student as he breaks down the financial crisis for us (This is mid-October, and Paulson’s Plan I is under fire).  But then he denounces the whole analysis as a media construct, and explains instead why the current situation points to a general—perhaps terminal—crisis of capitalism as a system.

Patrick is followed by the woman to my right, a Lebanese woman of a certain age who speaks French elegantly with thickly rolled rrr’s.  She identifies herself as a union activist, a long-time militante, and rather stirringly invites all present to work to build a better world.  After her a woman in her fifties named Marie-Claire—a writer, it turns out— urges the group to undertake not just activism but theoretical understanding, and offers some.

By now I am enjoying it all: the atmosphere of the place, the level of the discourse, my Turkish beer. At one point a clump of three or four younger comrades get up and stand in the vestibule, causing the président to interrupt the proceedings to condemn the problem of smoker-factionalism (he is kidding). Later, an older militant declares that he had had lots to say, but has been made to wait so long he has "lost his inspiration." He gives a rambling address, at the end of which he rather politely denounces the authoritarian tendencies of the presider, who insists in rebuttal that he was only correcting for the meeting’s lack of auto-regulation.

Through all the jockeying and good humor a few serious points surface again and again. Beyond trying to assess the crisis itself, people are concerned with the question of how to organize in these dark times. Many remark that not just the Socialists but the Communists too have sold out to free market capitalism, and some want to reclaim ‘communism’ as the term for a humane alternative to competition, crisis, and war (though most agree that the term is a hopeless impediment “among the young”). Perhaps the greatest consensus is around the double idea, that the crisis presents a whole new opportunity to talk to a larger public about capitalism’s failure, but the crisis is also a disaster in concrete terms for the very people the NPA wants to speak on behalf of.

By 10:30 or so the meeting adjourns with a reminder for people to pay the waitress—and some jokes about socializing the cost of the meal. But really the meeting only adjourns to the sidewalk, where 10 or 12 of the committee are still actively debating, and show no signs of going anywhere, as I make my way back to Ledru-Rollin.


Several days later I take the train to Évreux, an obscure little one-street town on the eastern edge of Normandy, where Olivier Besancenot is addressing a rally. Besancenot, a thirty-four-year-old mail carrier with a master’s degree in history, has twice run for President of the Republic as the candidate of the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR). Earnest and articulate, a media darling,  Besancenot has defied the odds by becoming one of France’s most popular politicians, with voter approval ratings over 60%. On the strength of that popularity the 40-year-old  Trotskyist LCR, with Besancenot as its public face, has decided to disband in favor of the more broadly-based NPA.

As I approach the Zenith theater I spot Besancenot in the crowd outside. He is a small man, fine-featured and impeccable in pullover and jeans—a potential heart-throb. Surrounded by mics and cameras, he is giving one of his unbelievably rapid-fire interviews, every word precise and logical, like a prof de lycée giving a lecture to his class—at double speed. As he finishes with the press I greet him and tell him I have come from America to hear him speak, an especially surprising declaration in this little rust-belt town. He responds with a quizzical upraised eyebrow as his handlers spirit him into the hall.

After a variety of movement activists have had a chance to speak to a packed hall,  Besancenot is introduced by a hoarse auto worker who has come directly from the picket line at the local Renault factory, where several hundred workers are losing their jobs “so the shareholders can have their dividends,” as he puts it. Besancenot begins in that same embattled tone, but he soon warms to his audience and begins to enjoy himself. He ridicules President 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-pa-nic”) he mockingly quotes. “Doesn’t that make you even more anxious?” And he makes 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.” I realize I am seeing close-up the Besancenot-effect I have heard so much about. He is performing the “mailman from Neuilly,” a folk opera about the local boy who outwits the profs and pols to tell the people’s real story to the emperor. He has drawn the audience into his performance, and he keeps them shouting and cheering as he denounces the “privatizing of profits and socializing of losses” and calls for an entirely public financial sector.  

Later, as his handlers slowly move him out the door and toward the parking lot, I get another close look. No longer lit by klieg lights, no longer radiant, his face is sweaty, and he is a bit slumped, clearly drained from the performance he has just turned in. He seems as small as his actual size, an ordinary person shouldering an enormous load. He is the lifeblood of this new party and the movements it embraces. Without him there would be no party. So his handlers gently detach him from his admirers, ease him into the back of a sedan, and drive off with him. He has to get up early tomorrow to deliver the mail.


The 14th arrondissement committee of the NPA meets biweekly in a public space at the Chateau Ouvrier (“Workers’ Castle”), an improbably-named public housing high-rise in one of Paris’s formerly working-class neighborhoods south of Montparnasse.  One of the NPA’s challenges is to develop a grass-roots or ‘federal’ committee structure in place of the centralized party hierarchy that is its Leninist legacy.  This local committee—and 400 like it all over France—are where that change must happen. As I listen to several dozen party activists discuss the formation of the new party, I realize that many of their concerns turn on this question: will the opinions of the base be listened to at the center?  By what mechanisms? Who decides?

Such questions come naturally to people who live their lives in activist groups and associations.  Dimitri, the presider by consensus, was a lifelong Communist Party militant, first in his native Greece and then, after the colonels’ coup, in France. Now he and many like him believe the CP is washed up, and hope this new party can carry on the struggle in a new, 21st-century way. Tough-minded, sometimes abrasive but very funny, Dimitri keeps the agenda on track, shushing all side conversations—“pas de dialogue, s’il te plaît”—and restricting every speaker to three minutes, carefully measured on his battered travel clock. His counter-weight, Marc, an “early retiree” who arrives on a bicycle with a sack of apples picked from his own tree for the comrades, is patient and avuncular, and moves his arguments forward with gentle humor. Some of the livelier minds in the group belong to graduate students in economics and sociology, and more than a few are union activists where they work.

 I get to know the regulars in this little group as I attend many meetings with them over the next few months. I am only partly joking later on when I write that they have become my "Village in the Vaucluse" (a famous longitudinal study of French peasant life), only vastly speeded-up. As in a village, the 25 or 30 attendees distribute through the available roles: the one who cites Jaurès or Marx, the one who tells a joke, the passive listeners, the objectors and the consensus-builders. Like a village square, NPA 14e meetings are the scene of flare-ups and reconciliations, dismissal (rare) and admiration (frequent). The 'old guard' of middle-aged men I saw running the meeting in October is mostly listening to a crew of 20-somethings in November, as our two young delegates to the national group report back, and a team of computer-savvy leaflet designers astonish us oldsters with their efficiency. See? I have a kind of a niche too, though they laugh when I introduce myself as "NPA un peu provisoire (a somewhat temporary member)."


One of the dramas of founding a far-left party is what to name it. Are words like ‘Communist’ and ‘Revolutionary’ too scary to go up in footlights? How about ‘Workers’? Will the new party be ‘Socialist’ or ‘Left,’ or are those words used up too?

A lively website and many meetings have belabored this question. All agree that ‘New’ and ‘Anti-capitalist’ won’t wear well. One of many interesting debates concerns whether or not the NPA intends to be a ‘party’ or a ‘movement.’ In next June’s European Parliamentary elections it will enter as a ‘party’ (if not an ‘alliance’), but for many of the comrades the party is just an extension of their movement work.

Supporting immigrants, the unemployed and under-housed, contesting Sarkozy’s ‘reforms’ and privatisations, for most NPA comrades these mobilizations are the real work of the party. I joined such a group, a support network for immigrants sans papiers, and kept vigil at the commissariat just off the rue des Écoles in the Latin Quarter as a woman from Ecuador was hauled in for questioning. A few weeks later the same group sponsored a lecture by Louis Joinet, an eminent jurist and UN human rights commissioner, who encouraged us to practice a carefully planned and monitored “civic resistance” to unfair immigration laws and their violent enforcement. Joinet was right about the efficacy of this work: even our low-key ‘civic resistance’ helped persuade the bureaucrats to back off and give our client her working papers.


One beautiful, breezy Sunday in late October I walk over to Port-Royal, just steps from my apartment, to help the NPA comrades work the manif, the big teachers’ protest march.  First they unfurl a shiny new banderole about ten meters long with the NPA logo—a bullhorn—and some words of encouragement to the teachers. This we affix to poles and tie onto street signs just at the critical junction at the top of the boulevard where the marchers will slow down before turning onto the boulevard Saint-Michel. Eighty thousand teachers from all over France will be making that turn, and our job is to distribute 10,000 leaflets urging them to join forces with us to reform not just the education ministry but the state itself.

I am busily handing out flyers when I look up, and there is Olivier Besancenot, doing what I’m doing, handing out leaflets. He is also talking with party stalwarts, greeting well-wishers, planting bises on friendly cheeks, and looking after his good-natured but sleepy son, who looks to be 3 or 4. It all seems oddly down-to-earth, oddly real somehow. As though this nationally prominent figure really does like to spend Sunday afternoons going to demonstrations, taking care of his kid, talking politics with his pals. It's hard to think what other political leader of his standing would turn up unstaged in just this way.

I had one other chance to see Besancenot up close, addressing a rally of some 2,000 party militants in Paris in November. The meeting started with testimonials from activists, including two undocumented workers from Africa whose accounts of underpaid and precarious work amid a stream of racist insults made a large impact on the crowd. This was two days after Barack Obama's election, and Besancenot started with some gracious words appreciating the historic significance of the event in light of the long history of racial oppression. "But make no mistake," he quickly added, the Democratic Party, like the Republicans, are and will continue to be agents of a failed capitalist system, whose injustices Besancenot proceeded to lay out in rhetoric that was fiery and witty by turns. For a good hour he kept his audience shouting and cheering. When he was finished, the whole room stood with upraised fists and sang the "Internationale" in its original French, as though the days of the Paris Commune were a recent memory. 

But seriously, does the NPA have any chance at all? Does it matter? Conventional punditry maintains that the whole question rests on Besancenot’s matinée looks and his mediagenic manner. Certainly his frequent appearances on French talk shows, culminating in his magisterial performance (sellout ? conquest?)  on a popular Sunday afternoon TV magazine show, make this media stardom sound like an important fact. But cults of leadership have been out of fashion since Stalin in leftist movements, especially in this new one, and Besancenot has repeatedly denied any long-term personal ambitions. More significantly, he has kept a notably low profile for the last few months since the big Paris rally in early November (See my post, “Obamencenot,” Viewsfrommontparnasse, 11/6/08). In the run-up to the NPA’s founding Congress in early February Besancenot is keeping the party, not himself, at center stage.

No matter how much Besancenot charms the cameras, though, if the world economy pulls out of its nose-dive—and pulls France and Europe with it—the NPA and its porte-parole will remain outliers, eccentrics, curiosities. But if things get worse (France’s job losses are if anything more serious than the USA’s), more French people will be turning to their left. What they will see is an imploded Socialist Party lurching between center-right and center-left, and beyond it, the smoldering remains of the Communist and other far-left parties. Striding across this desolated landscape, Besancenot and the NPA are conspicuously on the rise. Besancenot got 4% as a Presidential candidate in 2007; recent polls show him with 2 or 3 times that.  Every major politician and party in France is watching as he comes up fast in the rear-view mirror. 

Personally I agree with OB when he pleads that he is not the flesh-and-blood future of the NPA. History, or as Bogart calls it, “fate” will “play a hand,” and the resilience of the capitalist system will largely determine Besancenot's political fortunes, and the NPA's.  But it is also my old comrades in NPA Paris 14—they and many like them— who will determine the success or failure of this party. These militants will have the task of organizing and mobilizing their neighbors in the face of a prolonged crisis. They will have to bring their associations and support groups into the party, or else it will not grow. They will have to organize in the suburban slums, the banlieues that fester and spread around France’s major cities, full of alienated and disenfranchised immigrant families. Either the NPA will recruit large numbers of new historical actors in such places, or it will remain marginal. Many have recently described these impoverished districts  as “powder kegs” after the Greek example, ready to explode. No political party or movement has been able to contain or direct that energy for long.  But the convergence of the NPA’s organizing efforts with the epochal failure of the capitalist system could launch the party next month with surprising force.