France Goes Postal

From financial cataclysm to the greatest recession in modern memory, this global crisis has been a story of mass, mounting misery punctuated by a series of unthinkables. The collapse of historic banks, yo-yo markets, crash bailouts brokered overnight, world leaders of every stripe scrambling to summits to "rethink capitalism."

The world is upside down. Unless you're French—in which case you've harbored a deep suspicion about the whole system all along. The French have long been leery about globalization, even when they're on its good side, and have clamored for protection at the expense of growth. Dismissing the government's pleas for unity in crisis, they took to the streets en masse last week to stop reforms promised long before the system was stood on its head. So now, at a moment when the world has caught up with the deeply entrenched French belief that the unrestrained animal spirits—in John Maynard Keynes's famous phrase—might have more than a few drawbacks, it is hardly surprising that French affections have lurched even further to the left.

In fact, it has leaped over the mainstream left-leaning party, the chaotic, inarticulate, in-fighting Socialists, and found a standard-bearer in 34-year-old Olivier Besancenot, a radical leftist with a penchant for Trotsky and Che Guevara and a platform that includes forbidding layoffs, boosting the minimum wage by one third, and giving everyone a €300 net raise. With bank nationalization suddenly a real point of discussion in the United States, Great Britain and elsewhere, Besancenot is taking things a step further. He wants the state to expropriate banks and insurance companies, bankrupt or not, to create a giant public banking service run by the people. Or, as he writes in the Communist Revolutionary League's party magazine "Rouge," "if bosses refuse to share the right to property, if they oppose worker control, we demand their expropriation and worker self-management of their companies."

Anywhere but France, the cartoonish spokesman of the Communist Revolutionary League, a Trotskyite political party, would be relegated to the fringe. But in France, Besancenot, a postman in his day job, is a star. And as storm clouds gather, he has become the country's most influential opposition figure. Besancenot has achieved a 60 percent popularity rating, with 45 percent of those polled saying they want to see him have more influence in the future, ahead of mainstream leaders like the centrist François Bayrou (44 percent) and new Socialist leader Martine Aubry (42 percent). Among Socialist sympathizers, 62 percent want him to have more influence in French politics, ahead of many other figures, including the Socialists' own heavyweights. Perhaps even more extraordinarily, in a December poll—for the fourth month in a row—he was deemed the "best opponent" to face center-right French President Nicolas Sarkozy, which is no less than a humiliation for the Socialist Party.

Besancenot will parlay that popularity into the provisionally named New Anticapitalist Party he'll launch this weekend to replace the Communist Revolutionary League. The new party will formalize the blend of demands Besancenot has built his success on—calls for communist revolution mixed with modern, post-materialist causes like minority rights and the environment. The aim is to broaden its reach by dropping the archaic name and insular connotations in time for June's European Parliament elections.

Besancenot got his start in politics in 2002, as the Communist Revolutionary League's presidential candidate with the simple slogan "Olivier Besancenot, age 27, postman," taking full advantage of electoral rules that give even marginal candidates equal time to get their ideas into homes nationwide. Five years later, he ran again, still a postman and still 22 years younger than the average presidential candidate, and won a respectable 4 percent of the vote, placing fifth in a 12-horse field, ahead of France's disparate pack of far leftists. Now a household name, he is capitalizing on his youth, his job and a radical message that taps into the national myth of revolution. This idea, says Dominique Reynié, director general of the Foundation for Political Innovation, is "that politics are about a people, at a moment in history, rising up, revolting, the idea of a violent passage"—like the French Revolution, or the student-led rebellions of May 1968.

At the same time, he has touched a nerve among baby boomers, who have recently taken to buying up books like "How We Bankrupted Our Children" and "Our Children Will Hate Us," which reflect their guilt for enjoying the super-glue job security and generous early pensions that have indebted their own overqualified, underpaid kids. "It's difficult in a debate or in an interview to be tough with Olivier Besancenot," says Reynié. "Because if you're tough, if you try to contradict him strongly, you look brutal, like someone brutalizing young people."

His job is also an asset. With small towns across the country fighting to keep their post offices, threatened by cost-cutting schemes, postal services represent the reach and protection of the state in its friendliest form, public services ensuring equality before the state, seen as key threads in a frayed social fabric. Last year, a comedy about jolly French postal workers, "Bienvenue Chez les Ch'tis," unexpectedly became the most successful domestic film in French box-office history. The image—now iconic in France—of Besancenot riding his own yellow postal-service bicycle, with its big blue mail satchel up front, has served him well alongside the mythology of his maxim, "I am not a professional politician."

Besancenot is on the rise just when the financial crisis should be giving the mainstream left a golden opportunity to exploit the backlash against free markets. His popularity stems from—and also aggravates—the French left's crippling identity crisis. Gérard Grunberg, of the Cevipof political research center, says the Socialists have always had a complex, going back 100 years, about what was happening on their left. "There has always been a sort of moral and ideological blackmail on the theme 'You reformists, you liberals, we're the real revolutionaries, we're the real socialists'." So while there's nothing revolutionary about the Socialist Party, it doesn't dare break with the attitudes of the radical left. In the past that has meant a strange mix of economic policies. The last period of leftist governance, a Socialist-Communist-Green coalition from 1997 to 2002, is known for the dawn of the 35-hour workweek—a misguided measure to lower unemployment by treating work like a pie to be shared—as well as the most energetic period of privatization in French history. That fitfulness discredited the party, and Besancenot has thrived on the upshot: disappointed blue-collar and public-sector workers.

Today's Socialists are getting pulled to the left by Besancenot. In his new book, "The Besancenot Effect," pollster Denis Pingaud argues that Besancenot's support base is widening and becoming more loyal, forcing the Socialists to respond. Sarkozy himself has taunted the Socialists about Besancenot, comparing him to far-right firebrand Jean-Marie Le Pen, who for decades siphoned votes from the mainstream right. In November, after a bitter fight for the party leadership with relative centrist Ségolène Royal, Martine Aubry, the former employment minister responsible for the 35-hour workweek, won by stumping for alliances with the far left.

Meanwhile, Sarkozy is moving in the opposite direction, toward head-on confrontation with Besancenot. Sarkozy called the radical union Besancenot belongs to "irresponsible" in its methods, spurring Besancenot to accuse the president of "criminalizing the social movement." Sarkozy's house majority leader in turn said, "Olivier Besancenot incarnates the most aggressive, most violent elements of the extreme left. We condemn him and we fight him." By taking on the far left directly, Sarkozy effectively squeezes the Socialists out of the national conversation, and helps mollify the conservative wing of his own party, which dislikes the tactic he calls "ouverture," his occasional veers to the left in personnel and policy.

Besancenot, for his part, amid the global crisis, is looking forward to European Parliament elections under his New Anticapitalist Party colors. Because of its proportional-representation method, the European ballot favors small, even anti-system, protest parties and tends to get distorted into a referendum on the domestic powers that be. Besancenot's profile rose in 2005 when he campaigned against the European constitution (as too economically liberal) in France's 2005 referendum, and his new party could do well in June. Polls show his new and much anticipated party is attracting 8 percent of the vote, even before its official launch.

The party faces the same paradox as Besancenot, an outsider seeking real power. His party will score better if its star runs for a seat, but Besancenot will be tarnished if he has to quit his postal route to become a "professional" politician. That matter, and the party's name, will be on the table this weekend.

The fact that a player so self-consciously marginal can exercise such a skewed hold on French national politics hints at deep dysfunctions. And the fact that an economic crisis that nudged the world a little further left should hit just as France's long-standing leftist opposition had crippled itself is more than unlucky. It threatens to prolong that party's ineptness, radicalize political discourse and raise the risk of bad solutions at the worst of moments, when all bets are off and the future is a blank slate. And for France, one of the world's biggest economies, climbing out of this crisis was going to be tough enough with a system that worked.