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French rebel with a cause

Mark Mardell | 10:55 UK time, Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Olivier Besancenot addressing rallyVENISSIEUX, near Lyon, France

The young man dressed simply but smartly in a black shirt and jeans clutches a large microphone in one hand, while the other cuts the air, soars, jabs.

The impish grin has gone and he radiates passion and an air of seriousness - for all the world like the one member of a boy band who has the talent to go solo and live on beyond his good looks. (I owe my colleague John Lichfield, The Independent's superb Paris correspondent, for sparking the comparison.) Olivier Besancenot is the Robbie Williams of French Communism.

"Don't let them tell us that we are after utopia.

"It is" - and he spreads out the word to make a point about the economic crisis - "a pol-i-ti-cal choice: when there is a natural disaster, an earthquake or a war, the state declares a state of emergency. For us the social consequence of capitalism is a natural disaster".

The banner above his head means: "No question: We will not pay for their crisis". At the foot of the platform: "Ban layoffs!"

Not that you hear the "c" word from the platform. One name check for Marx (worth reading apparently), none for Trotsky or revolution, permanent or otherwise. Perhaps the one give-away is the logo of the NPA, the New Anti-Capitalist Party - a megaphone outlined on a red flag, stylised and very Soviet Constructivist.

The NPA is indeed new, but it was formed two years ago, when the Revolutionary Communist League decided to disband and reform. The goal was to create a rainbow alliance, deliberately embracing feminism and ecology as essential components of a modern radical movement.

The original party doubled in size to 3,000 people when Besancenot fought the presidential election. The new party claims to have tripled that membership.

I am in this packed town hall, along with about 1,000 others, because I have a bee in my bonnet. I can't quite believe that we will emerge from the economic crisis with politics as usual intact, although so far I must admit there is no sign of anything but business pretty much as usual.

But these Euro elections are the first chance for people in most EU countries to pass a verdict on their governments. So I am particularly interested in whether the hard left or right pick up votes, and I am here in France to look at the left.Olivier Besancenot

Olivier Besancenot has enough charisma and charm to be able to stress that policies, not personalities, are what matter. But I think my mum would like him. A good-looking, well-groomed young man, casually smart in jeans and a black shirt, who sounds like he cares. But he is not leader, for there is a collective leadership and 10 people share the platform.

One extraordinary opinion poll in March suggested that Besancenot was almost level-pegging with Sarkozy as the most credible politician in France. Asked who is most capable of changing things 38% choose the president and 35% Besancenot. The leader of the main opposition party, the Socialists, got 28%. And the disarray of the traditional French left is a big part of this story. But polls ahead of this election put the NPA at a miserable 7%.

Besancenot tells me: "There is a new political space opening up. We feel there is even a part of the French political class that is taking up ideas which only we were expressing four or five years ago. That allows us to go a bit further. But our discourse only makes sense if there is a mass of the population who thinks politics belongs to them, not professional politicians."

He adds: "The crisis will only be useful to the left if there are victorious social struggles which make our anti-capitalist solutions credible. The crisis can bring out the best or the worst. The best being victorious mobilisation at a European level, which would give back confidence. The worst would be if this doesn't happen and it becomes every man for himself, which would bring out individualistic or even xenophobic ideas."

My feeling is that if there is something of a resurgence of radicalism in France, it is a mood, not a movement. But that stylised megaphone does make a lot of noise (ah yes, we in the media amplify the phenomena). And we will have to wait until 7 June to see who is marching to a post-revolutionary tune.

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