PARIS—Two improbable new political parties have been born in France. One claims to already have the support of 15 percent of the population—not merely of the French republic but of the entire European Union. In a multi-party parliamentary democracy, that's big. And mainstream pundits expect that number to double within a year.
France's resurgent left has been born of a movement born of a level of mass rage and popular resentment the likes of which no one has seen since the 1930s. Like Americans, French voters are terrified as securities markets falter and companies lay off tens of thousands of workers. They're furious about bank bailouts that cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of euros, with little to no accountability as the beneficiaries spent the money on everything except helping the ordinary people and small businesses who need it most. But unlike the United States, the incendiary rhetoric of France's left has seized the popular imagination and is redefining the acceptable range of political debate.
Jean-Luc Melenchon quit France's Socialist Party a few months ago, decrying his former comrades as out of touch. Now he's the co-founder of France's Left Party (PG), a coalition of left-of-center parties. A week earlier, Olivier Besancenot formed the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA), which he says has 9,000 "militants" dedicated to the overthrow of the liberal economic system that has dominated Europe since the end of World War II. Anti-capitalist!
Even in left-leaning France, there wouldn't have been enough wine in all of France to convince a politician that he could successfully market the NPA's battle cry—they want nothing less than "a total break with capitalism"—to the voting public. "The right to happiness," a PG deputy said flatly, "is still a new idea." And that's what they're selling.
The Left Party seeks to unite France's left-of-center factional parties—communists, socialists, greens and members of the New Anti-Capitalist Party—under an umbrella alliance that would preserve their ideological differences while focusing their attention on dismantling the free market system that many agree has brought France to the brink of economic ruin.
To this American's eyes, revolution is in their air. A week ago, labor unions and leftist political parties declared a national strike, forcing schools, banks, transportation links and government offices to close. More than a million Parisians marched in the streets, calling for the ouster of conservative French President Nicolas Sarkozy. (Adjusting for France's population, that's the equivalent of five million demonstrators in Washington, D.C., demanding that Barack Obama step down.)
"There is room for everyone with legitimate political opinions, a PG official said in a radio interview. "This does not include the right." What should French conservatives do, he was asked? "They should leave the country." "Down with Sarkozy," a sign hanging from a city hall in the Auvergne region read, "Death to the capitalists." The Auvergne is one of the country's most conservative regions.
What does "anti-capitalism" mean? Besancenot, head of the New Anti-Capitalist Party, foresees a society where "the majority controls and expropriates wealth. Nowadays, the fruits of one's labor is stolen by a minority; we will ensure that everyone gets his or her fair share."
Communists have always been around, especially in France. But the mainstream Socialist Party (PS) has expressed a willingness to unite with its erstwhile rivals. The PS, PG and NPA all say they're setting aside factionalism. The last time France's left was this unified was 1936, when a similar anti-capitalist coalition formed the Popular Front government.
Of course, there are cynics ... on the left. "I'm not going to close down my shop and waste the afternoon marching in the streets unless it's for real revolution, for a real popular movement," a store manager told me. "These demonstrations are just to prop up the official left, which supports the status quo," he continued.
Capitalism is in crisis, both here and in the United States. Is it doomed? No one knows, but the future of minimally regulated free markets is anything but certain.
Ted Rall is the author of To Afghanistan and Back: A Graphic Travelogue and Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East? He draws cartoons and writes columns for Universal Press Syndicate.