French revolution heirs
Almost one in six voters in France's presidential elections intend to vote for the far left. The star is a woman candidate of a shadowy Trotskyist organisation - whose real leader never appears in public. Hugh Schofield reports.
Polls show that between them, the four candidates of the Communist Party (PC), Workers' Struggle (LO), the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR) and the Workers' Party (PT) will win about 15 percent of the vote in the first round of the election on 21 April.
The high figure bucks the trend set in other democracies, where the far left has been in free fall since the collapse of the Soviet bloc a decade ago. It reinforces France's reputation as a place where ideology retains a central importance in political life.
With between five and six percent in the polls, Robert Hue, 55, brings with him the organising might of the Communists, who have been in government for the last five years. Behind him come postman Olivier Besancenot of the LCR, with 0.5 percent, and the PT's Daniel Gluckstein with even less.
But the revolutionaries' real star is the Lutte Ouvrière candidate Arlette Laguiller, 62, a five-time presidential candidate who, after winning 5.3 percent in 1995, now has the support of around one in 10 French voters.
The only leading politician in France to be commonly known by her first name, "Arlette" - a former bank worker - has succeeded in rallying working class supporters disenchanted by the centrist drift of mainstream left-wing politics.
With her boyish dark hair and downbeat dress sense, she has become a familar national figure, crisscrossing the country with a sermon of anti-capitalism and the class struggle. Her rallies always conclude with a fist-clenched rendition of the Internationale, with granny-like Arlette leading the choir.
Commentators put Laguiller's growing popularity down to a number of causes: her charismatic simplicity, a message unchanged for 30 years with a particular appeal to women, as well as the declining fortunes of the Communists, regarded by many as having sold out to the Socialists.
"Arlette Laguiller's movement has the great virtue of bringing back into political life many people who might otherwise have switched off because they feel excluded from society," the French newspaper Le Monde commented.
However, opponents accuse Laguiller of embodying a political idea that died out in the rest of the world decades ago, and say her party has all the attributes of an ultra-secret and paranoid cult.
Lutte Ouvrière grew out of a pre-war Trotskyist group called the Internationalist Communist Union, and today its organisation is veiled in obscurity. It has no official address beyond a postal box, and all meetings are held behind closed doors.
More bizarrely, while Laguiller is the party's evergreen figurehead, she is not its leader: the boss is a shadowy figure who goes by the code name Hardy. He has never given a speech or appeared on television to explain his views, but he is said to direct the party with a puritanical discipline.
Several LO members have denounced its practices - some even claimed that militants are discouraged from marrying in order to concentrate on the cause - but when pressed on this in a recent radio interview, Laguiller broke into tears and complained of media harassment.
Republican France remains heavily influenced by its revolutionary origins. Even Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin was forced to admit - after first lying about it - that he was a Trotskyist as a young man.
But the extent and depth of left-wing ideology can still surprise. Zheng Ruolin - correspondent in Paris of the Chinese daily Wenhuibao - said he found it "moving" that so many supported the far left, but he found Laguiller's ideas based on a reading of Marx and Engels that had long since disappeared even in China.
"It is as if time had stood still," he said in an interview with the left-wing newspaper Liberation.
April 2002. ©AFP