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April 2002 • Vol 2, No. 4 •

Working Class Heroine Woos French Voters

PARIS LETTER: Her first name rhymes with starlette, vedette (star) and chouette (neat), adjectives used in newspaper headlines to describe the biggest surprise of the French presidential campaign—”le phénomène Arlette.”

Where but in France could a Trotskyist, 62-year-old retired bank teller vie for third place in the country’s most important election?

Arlette Laguiller is the only politician in France who is universally referred to by her first name. Twenty-eight years have passed since she shed her underground alias of Comrade Bizet (“because I liked Carmen”) to become the first female presidential candidate. Now she holds the record for standing in five successive elections, one more than President Jacques Chirac.

Unless things change dramatically in the four-and-a-half weeks before the presidential poll, around three million French people will vote for the Lutte Ouvrière (Workers’ Struggle) candidate on April 21st. The score will be a tribute to “Arlette’s” perseverance—and a powerful example of what the pollster Philippe Mechet calls “le vote guelard”—the “screaming vote.”

In her first campaign in 1974, “Arlette” won 2.33 per cent of the vote; in the last election in 1995, 5.3 per cent. Now, as her share of opinion poll totals reaches 9.5 per cent, Communist and Socialist leaders warn supporters that a vote for “Arlette” is “wasted,” since her party refuses to join a “bourgeois government.” “We can carry weight outside government,” Ms. Laguiller said in an interview at her two-room campaign headquarters in the working class (of course) suburb of Pantin.

“If the vote confirms the opinion poll predictions, it will strengthen the morale and the combativeness of the workers.”

Ms. Laguiller has a kind face and cheerful, gentle manner. She looks surprisingly like Louise Michel, the “red virgin” leader of the 1871 Paris Commune, whose image hangs in her office.

But she has no illusions about the brutality of class warfare. Her tough streak comes through in the televised political satire “Les Guignols de l’info,” when the “Arlette” puppet vows to “hang the bourgeois by their guts.” Change is never brought about at the ballot box, she tells me. “It’s based on the balance of power, and the power of the working class is its ability to stop working. Big business is very rich, and they’d rather give in than lose everything. They’re terrified of revolution.”

“Still in the camp of the workers,” says the banner at Ms. Laguiller’s campaign rallies—she’s held 60 since October—and the cover of her new book, My Communism, printed by the biggest French political publisher, Plon.

She accuses the French communist party of surrendering to the “bourgeois camp” of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.

Ms. Laguiller makes two campaign promises: to forbid companies from firing employees, and to do away with all banking secrecy.

There are three Trotskyist presidential candidates in France—four if you count the former Trotskyist, Mr. Jospin. Ms. Laguiller attributes the doctrine’s endurance to “the strong workers’ tradition” here. Much of her support comes from disaffected communists and socialists who reproach the “plural left” for governing from the center for the past five years.

But political analysts say about a quarter of Arlette’s voters come from the right. They are attracted by her consistency—she’s been saying the same thing for 28 years—and honesty so palpable she’s called a secular saint.

Mr. Chirac and Mr. Jospin look elegant in their identical Lanvin suits, but Ms. Laguiller was photographed by Paris Match wearing a tracksuit on the balcony of her apartment in a council housing estate in Les Lilas, the Paris suburb where she has lived for 51 of her 62 years.

Critics of the phénomène Arlette say Lutte Ouvrière is more like a secretive sect than a political party, run by a mysterious “Comrade Hardy” who bans Trotskyists from marrying. “They tell a lot of lies and nonsense about us,” Ms. Laguiller says. “Comrade Hardy’s real name is Robert Barcia; he’s 73-years-old and he’s been one of our leaders for a long time.

“We don’t have titles like other political parties—there’s no secretary general —so journalists don’t understand. They make fun of us for using aliases, but we had to protect our comrades working in companies from repression by the management.”

As for the famous ban on marriage, “We are atheists. We are Marxists. We are for equality between men and women, and marriage remains a form of slavery,” Ms. Laguiller explains. That doesn’t prevent Trotskyists from falling in love or having children, she adds.

Being famous has made it awkward for her to go for walks in public with her boyfriend, she lets slip in an unguarded moment.

She is shocked by Mr. Chirac’s and Mr. Jospin’s “exploitation” of their wives for political gain.

“I’m a feminist. I think companions or spouses should not be used as stage props.”

—© The Irish Times





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