Nicolas Sarkozy's greatest stroke of luck so far in his brief tenure as president of France has been the disintegration of his principal opposition, the Socialist party.
In last year's election, Sarkozy defeated a charismatic, if somewhat eccentric, Socialist, Ségolène Royal, who took 47 percent of the vote. The week after the election, François Hollande, the Socialist party leader and the father of Royal's four children, separated from her--both personally and politically--and made it clear that he intended to be the party's next presidential candidate.
Royal wasn't having it. Not only would she run again, she insisted, but she would wrest the party apparatus away from Hollande. Bertrand Delanoë, the popular mayor of Paris, meanwhile declared his own candidacy (he describes himself as "socialiste et libéral," loosely translatable as "libertarian socialist"). Younger Socialist comers, like Pierre Moscovici, a former minister for European affairs, and Julien Dray, Royal's former éminence grise, stepped into the fray. Not to mention Martine Aubry, the mayor of Lille, who, as minister for social affairs 10 years ago, masterminded the statute that makes it illegal in France to work more than 35 hours a week. While the Socialists can still win local elections--they creamed Sarkozy's party in municipal elections in March--they currently have no national leaders capable of prevailing in national elections, whether for president or parliament.
But what if another party of the left were to replace the Socialists, or even just give them some competition? Until recently, this would have seemed far-fetched. Not any more. Meet Olivier Besancenot, the 34-year-old mailman and spokesman for the small Trotskyite Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) who has just emerged as the founder and leader of the New Anticapitalist party (le Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, NPA).
According to a recent OpinionWay/Le Figaro/LCI poll, 17 percent of the French are considering supporting him. Bertrand Delanoë gets only 13 percent, Ségolène Royal 9 percent. Among Socialist and other left-wing voters, Besancenot's rise is even more dramatic: Twenty-six percent already see him as the "best opposition leader," whereas Delanoë gets 19 percent, Socialist chairman François Hollande 10 percent, and Royal 9 percent. Moreover, 65 percent of all respondents say they have a "very positive" opinion of him.
The chief reason for Besancenot's popularity is that, like Barack Obama (to quote Michelle Obama), "he's cute." With his boyish face, broad smile, and big eyes, Besancenot appeals to his generational peers, women, and even older people, who tend to see him as their virtual son. This has not escaped the talk show hosts, who are eager to have him on the air as often as possible, as if he were a rock star or supermodel. (Incidentally, the same holds true on the right: Rama Yade, a lovely young woman of Senegalese descent, is one of the most popular and media-friendly ministers in the Sarkozy government.)
Another reason for Besancenot's popularity is that he is supposedly working class. He got a job with the French postal service in 1997, when he was 23. Technically, he still qualifies as a mailman and earns less than 1,200 euros a month. That allows him to dress casually when he's on TV, use down to earth language, and dismiss other guests as "members of the elite." In fact, though the public doesn't know it, this is largely a fraud.
Besancenot's popularity has already borne fruit: the transformation of the tiny LRC into the suddenly chic New Anticapitalist party. Pollsters say the NPA may draw from 10 to 20 percent of the vote. That would secure it a voice in local and regional assemblies and seats in the European parliament, though not necessarily a breakthrough to the French National Assembly, given the complexities of French electoral law. Much will depend on the NPA's long-term relationship with the Socialists.
For most of the 20th century, the French left was split between the Socialists, who remained committed to democracy and the rule of law, and the Communists (PC), who called for the dictatorship of the proletariat. After 1945, the Socialists supported NATO and European integration, whereas the Communists aligned themselves with the Soviet Union and resisted European unification as an "American capitalist plot."