Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 19 April 2012
There has been something about French politics that I’ve liked for as long as I can remember. As a kid in the 1960s, Charles de Gaulle – giant nose, strange military hat – was the only foreign leader I could recognise apart from Mao Zedong and Fidel Castro. As a teenager in the early 1970s I devoured the novels of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. A little bit later I came to marvel at France’s extraordinary left-wing intellectual culture.
I was never a fan of Louis Althusser, the main intellectual of the French Communist Party; and Sartre as communist fellow-traveller left me cold. But I gobbled up everything I could find by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Cornelius Castoriadis, Claude Lefort, Henri Lefebvre, André Gorz, Guy Debord, Edgar Morin, Jacques Camatte, Pierre Bourdieu. Les evenements of 1968 were an obsession, the dissident left and leftish journals of the 50s, 60s and 70s – Socialisme ou Barbarie, Arguments, Esprit – an inspiration despite my useless French. By 1980, I’d decided that I wanted to live in Paris.
I never did, but I did get to meet some of the people whose books and articles I’d taken so seriously. Castoriadis was a lovely man, Lefort rather formal, Camatte more interested in getting off with my then girlfriend than in anything else. My bookshelves are still populated by obscure pamphlets bought from secondhand stalls along the banks of the Seine. I have a near-mint first Editions Spartacus printing of that great French intellectual Denis Healey’s Les Socialistes derrière le rideau de fer. And I once slept in a bed once slept in by Amadeo Bordiga, the first leader of the Italian Communist Party and in later life a noted left communist, at the Paris flat of some former militants of Programme Communiste…
I was not the first Brit to be seduced by the French intellectual left – and some people went the whole hog, most notably the late Tony Judt, whose magnum opus Postwar I read (belatedly) over the Easter holiday weekend.
But the magic wore off for me. By the mid-1980s, the golden era of the French intellectuals was over. The big figures of the 1950s were getting old and dying, and the generation of 1968 had either joined the political mainstream or drifted into marginality.
Many of the 68ers’ enthusiasms – particularly workers’ self-management and a reduction of working time – had been adopted by the French Socialist Party in the run-up to its sensational election victory in 1981, but Francois Mitterrand’s administration soon dropped even the pretence of being other than technocratic.
The past 30 years have not been kind to the French left. The Mitterrand era faded away into recrimination after the left lost the 1986 national assembly election – though Mitterrand himself won the 1988 presidential race – and the once-mighty Communist Party dwindled to a rump.
There was a brief moment of hope in 1997, when the left unexpectedly won a national assembly majority under Lionel Jospin, but in the 2002 presidential election Jospin failed to make it into the second round, which was contested between the fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen and the incumbent Jacques Chirac. The less said about the state of the left for the rest of the noughties – split over Europe and just about everything else – the better.
But could the tide be about to turn at last? It might just be. The Socialist candidate for the imminent presidential election, Francois Hollande, looks likely to make it into the second round, in which he would be hot favourite to beat Nicolas Sarkozy. There’s even something of a left movement on the march: the campaign of the communist-dominated Front de Gauche, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has had a vigour few expected, with big rallies all over the country exhibiting wild enthusiasm for his populist anti-capitalist rhetoric.
It could yet end in disaster – my worst-case scenario is Mélenchon making it into the second round instead of Hollande and then losing to Sarkozy – but there’s a good chance that we’ll wake up on 7 May to find that France has a centre-left president for the first time in 17 years. That wouldn’t return us to the era of Editions Spartacus and Socalisme ou Barbarie … but it would certainly cheer me up.