Fw:Allez Arlette! (The Guardian)
farmelantj at juno.com
Thu Apr 18 06:32:13 MDT 2002
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Arlette Laguiller campaigns for violent revolution and an end to
democracy. So why are 3.5 million French people going to vote for her in
this weekend's presidential elections? Jon Henley on how a radical won
the hearts of a nation
Wednesday April 17 2002
If you believe the polls, in the first round of the presidential
elections this Sunday, some 3.5 million perfectly reasonable French
people will cast their vote for a 62-year-old retired typist fighting for
the overthrow of parliamentary democracy and the dictatorship of the
Not very many of Arlette Laguiller's supporters have a clue as to what
those splendidly Bolshevik ideals mean, of course, and fewer still would
want them actually put into practice. But then the diminutive
Trotskyite's extraordinary and enduring popularity has never borne much
relation to the public's opinion of her policies.
Arlette the Starlette, as she is affectionately known, is riding sky-high
in this, her fifth presidential campaign. Credited with between nine and
10% of the first-round vote, she drew more than 6,000 near-hysterical
fans to her final campaign meeting last weekend at the leading Paris rock
venue le Zenith.
There are so many disillusioned socialists saying that they are going to
vote for her, that the left's leading candidate, prime minister Lionel
Jospin, has had to hastily reprofile himself as "the representative of
the concrete left, the one that actually wants to govern and does not say
- like Ms Laguiller - that it doesn't give a damn about what happens
after the first round".
But Jospin cannot be too scathing about Laguiller. If he is to stand any
chance at all of winning the second- round run-off on May 5, he will need
her first-round supporters to back him against the conservative
incumbent, Jacques Chirac. Laguiller, of course, has sworn that she will
never endorse the prime minister, describing him as a "traitor to the
working class" and a "capitalist turncoat".
In 1974, Laguiller, the voice and face of the shadowy Lutte
Ouvrière, or Workers' Struggle party, was the first French woman
ever to run for president - despite the fact that she believes (to quote
the party magazine) that the aim of all workers must be to "destroy the
apparatus of the bourgeois state, its government and its parliament, its
courts, its police and its army, and seize power themselves directly
because ballots do not change lives".
Back then, she got 2.3% of the vote. By 1995 she was polling 5.3%, and in
regional elections three years later she won a similar percentage of the
vote and collected 20 seats on regional councils. In 1999 she was elected
an MEP. "She's so well known, she doesn't even need to campaign," says
Jean-Marc Lech of the Ipsos polling agency.
This year's doubling in Laguiller's support is due mainly to the fact
that the mainstream Communist party has been a part of Jospin's
Socialist-led coalition for the past five years, and so it is tarred with
his Blairite brush. But her doggedperseverance and increasingly endearing
personality - which includes bursting into tears when interviewers attack
her - are also a factor.
A recent survey by French Elle found that Laguiller was the one candidate
out of the record 16 who qualified for the first round of the elections
(including three other representatives of the French far-left) with whom
voters would feel comfortable sharing their problems.
Her integrity certainly carries weight. She lives according to her
principles, owning virtually nothing and never varying her message.
"Before, people always used to criticise me for saying the same thing,"
she says. "Now that's become a quality, people say of me: she's sincere,
she's faithful to her ideals. As if that was an unusual thing to be."
Arlette the Starlette lives in a two-room, 13th-floor council flat in the
Communist-led Paris suburb of Les Lilas, and survives on a £1,000-a-
month pension from Credit Lyonnais. She worked for the bank (albeit
mainly as a full-time union organiser) from the age of 17, straight after
leaving secretarial college, until retiring four years ago.
Born in 1940, Laguiller has been, in the words of one former colleague,
"a committed revolutionary since roughly 1939". In 1960 she found her
muse, Leon Trotsky, in a tract published at the height of France's bloody
war against Algerian independence by the Union Communiste
Internationaliste, an obscure outfit created after the second world war
on the margins of the Fourth International.
Disbanded in the wake of the 1968 student uprising, the UCI - a few dozen
militants - was reformed in secret in the early 1970s, with Lutte
Ouvrière as its principal front. Laguiller's political career was
launched, as the party's spokeswoman, in the 1973 general elections.
Lutte Ouvrière is an underground organisation. It has no HQ where
the public can go for information, just a PO box number. Its leaders
never speak in public and are known even to party activists only by their
pseudonyms. There is a telephone number, but it is hard to find. Party
members usually return calls from a public phone box because, in the
words of one member, militants "live as if the police were spying on them
- and are getting in training".
The French media have talked of tests that must be passed before a
prospective member can join: selling the party newspaper, gaining a
certain number of contacts. Members are asked to make "special financial
contributions" from wherever they can find the money. Women who are
particularly serious about their political activity are, it is widely
rumoured, discouraged from having children.
"They make you read a novel, Domilita, which tells the story of a
Bolivian militant who was arrested and tortured. She ended up talking
because they threatened her children," one member told Libération.
Starting a family is, in short, seen as becoming bourgeois - and thus
incompatible with the revolutionary ideal.
The generally sweet-faced Laguiller says angrily that this is nonsense,
part of a litany of evil tales cooked up by the capitalist media to
frighten off would-be revolutionaries. She has even taken the Green MEP
(and former hero of the student uprising of May 1968) Dany Cohn-Bendit to
court for describing Lutte Ouvrière as a sect, and herself as the
obedient servant of a cult headed by a shadowy guru known only as Hardy.
But she did, a month or so ago, admit to the really-not-very-proletarian
gossip magazine Gala that although she had a man in her life, she "kept
him well hidden" and that she had never had children because "my militant
life makes me feel I'm fighting for every child in the world".
It has taken a long time, but the glossies have finally got hold of
Laguiller. Gala was the first, showing the unreconstructed angel of the
hard left in her flat, cooking a simple meal, flipping through a
biography of Trotsky, and revealing that her entire MEP's salary is paid
to Lutte Ouvrière. Paris Match followed.
Nowadays, she's such a draw that there's no chance of getting a personal
interview. According to Caroline Monnot of Le Monde, Lutte Ouvrière
is using the tactics that a movie star's agent would employ. She says
that accreditations have to be applied for in advance and that there are
waiting lists. And once in the presence of Laguiller, only three timed
questions are allowed.
Laguiller's short-cropped hair and sensible shoes create a false
impression of vulnerability, one that the iron-willed and
self-sacrificing revolutionary is not unhappy to encourage. When she
finally took to the stage at le Zenith last weekend, after the last
strains of the Internationale had died away and the cries of "Arlette -
revolution!" had waned, she appealed to her cheering fans: "Stop it!
You'll make me cry."
But then, with her raucous trademark greeting of "Travailleuses,
travailleurs", she's off into a familiar, if blistering, attack on "the
bosses, the imperialists, the market traders and the parasite classes who
exploit the workers". She wants wages raised; lay-offs by profitable
companies outlawed; banking secrecy laws scrapped so that the workers can
keep an eye on their bosses' dealings.
"Most of the candidates are socially and politically in the camp of the
bourgeoisie," she says. "They are competing only to better the affairs of
the bosses, the managers, the businessmen and the bankers. Me, I am from
the workers' camp. It is their interests - moral, material and social -
that I want to defend."
And after waiting more than 40 years, she is patient, Laguiller, very
patient. "People are beginning to hear us," she says. "I'm not naive, I
know it will take as long as it takes, but I am convinced that capitalism
will not be the last form of society that we know. The revolution will be
violent, but doubtless much less murderous than any war. So . . . it will
Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited
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