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France's leftists launch New Anti-Capitalist Party

The far left is seeing a rebirth amid an economic crisis that has lent credence to anti-capitalist ideas. Leftist leader Olivier Besancenot has seized the chance to dissolve the Communist Revolutionary League and launch the New Anti-Capitalist Party.


Reuters - The French far-left is enjoying a renaissance thanks to the economic crisis which has given new credence, in the eyes of millions, to its anti-capitalist ideas.


Its figurehead is Olivier Besancenot, a postman who ran as presidential candidate in 2002 and 2007 of the Communist Revolutionary League (LCR), a tiny Trotskyist group born during the May 1968 uprising.


With polls showing he is now one of the most popular politicians in France and media queuing up to interview him, Besancenot has seized the moment to dissolve the tired old LCR and on Friday he launched a New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA).


He wants to tap into anger over the crisis, which many people blame on free markets gone haywire, to bring about "a new May 1968" with mass protests and a general strike.

This would force the government to meet his demand for all workers to get a 300 euros ($384) a month pay rise, he says.


But analysts see Besancenot's popularity as a sign of the times rather than the start of a revolution.


"Besancenot and the NPA are an expression of discontent, not a motor of discontent," said Stephane Rozes of pollsters CSA.


Besancenot, 34, is a gifted orator who is as comfortable extolling Che Guevara as denouncing President Nicolas Sarkozy. He scored more than 4 percent in his two presidential bids -- an impressive score for the tiny LCR.


His current good fortune comes down to three key elements: the crisis, Sarkozy's decision to direct state aid at banks and companies not consumers, and disarray among the Socialists who are supposed to be the main left-wing opposition force.

Stricken Socialists

Bogged down in an internal power struggle since their candidate Segolene Royal lost to Sarkozy in 2007, the Socialists get more attention these days for their infighting than for any counter-proposal to Sarkozy's policies.


"It's almost a mechanical reaction. Whenever Sarkozy is unpopular and the Socialists are seen as ineffective as an opposition to Sarkozy, Besancenot gets a boost in the polls," said Gael Sliman of pollsters BVA.


However, he and Rozes said the situation was explosive because of a perception that ordinary people were paying for the errors of the rich and that Sarkozy was helping the wrong people.


Chaos could ensue, they said, but they doubted that it would derive from those openly advocating upheaval like Besancenot.


"The forest is very, very dry and it would only take one spark to start a fire," said Sliman.


That spark could be something totally unexpected, like the death of two teenagers while fleeing police that was the trigger for weeks of rioting in 2005 in the poor suburbs.


Or it could be a mass protest movement that starts off under the control of the unions and then takes on a momentum of its own and paralyses the country, as happened in late 1995.


The real risk for Sarkozy is much more nebulous than a newly vigorous far-left, which is nothing new in France.


For three decades after World War Two, the Communist Party regularly scored around 30 percent in national elections and it was stronger than the Socialist Party.

French oddity

That changed with former President Francois Mitterrand, a Socialist, who reversed the balance between the two big left-wing parties. Today the Communists are a shadow of their former selves, scoring less than 2 percent in the 2007 election.


However, it is a French oddity that a plethora of tiny far-left groups have survived and together they still matter.


In 2002, so many Socialist voters were disappointed with their candidate Lionel Jospin that they voted for the far-left instead and Jospin, beaten by far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, failed to make the run-off against Jacques Chirac.


A recent poll by Ifop found that the NPA, the Communist Party and other far-left groups together could score as much as 15 percent in European parliamentary elections due in June.


But analysts did not see Besancenot and the NPA as a lasting threat to the Socialists. The bigger threat for them is their own inability to unite around a strong platform, but if they overcome that they will take the wind out of the NPA's sails.


Another sign of the rise of the far-left is the growth of the radical labour union Sud, which was behind wildcat strikes that forced the closure of Saint Lazare train station in Paris on Jan. 13.


Sud, which counts Besancenot among its members, doubled its score to 4 percent in December elections for labour tribunals.


It is dwarfed by the Communist-rooted CGT, with 34 percent, but Sud's growth and ability to grab the media spotlight fuelled speculation that it would put pressure on the CGT and other mainstream unions to become more radical.


Experts say that has not happened, however.


"If you look at what the big unions are asking for, it is simply a renegotiation of the government's economic strategy so that stimulus measures are split more fairly between companies and workers. It's hardly revolutionary," said Guy Groux, an expert on unions at the Cevipof political research institute. 


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