France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

January 27, 2009

Ralph Nader, meet Olivier Besancenot

Okay, so maybe the day has not yet arrived in France where a young black boy, or girl, can dream of growing up to be president of the republic, even if the Socialist Party’s most visible representative these days is a politician of African origin whose name really is Harlem Desir. But a young radical communist tyke faces no such obstacles, thanks to a political — and more important, media — French democracy that beats the American model hands down. Contrast, if you will, the fate of Ralph Nader, whose 50-year track record winning battles for a very mainstream constituency, namely consumers, hasn’t stopped the U.S. corporate media from excluding him from every presidential debate, with the result that he’s never tallied more than two percent of the vote, with that of Olivier Besancenot, a.k.a. the postman from Neuilly, the leader of the League of Communist Revolutionaries (soon to become the New Anti-capitalist Party) who got nearly 5 percent of the vote in the crowded first round of the 2007 presidential election here (where he was competing with four other candidates on the far left alone), more than the Communists and the party of Jose Bové combined.

What accounts for the disparity between Nader’s and Besancenot’s results? Especially when you consider that the latter’s agenda is far more radical — including, still, a redistribution of wealth — than the former’s? (Remember that where Besancenot advocates for the under-privileged and workers, Nader made his name championing the rights of… consumers.) Simply put, for all its vaunting of Democratic values, corporate-owned mainstream media and, essentially, money ensure that the U.S. remains more a duocracy than a plutocracy. Money guarantees that the campaigns of the Democrats and Republicans drown out any other voices, often with fatal results: Obama has yet to condemn Israel’s war crimes in Gaza, ludicrously maintaining an equivalence of suffering in the face of statistics that say otherwise. (At last count, 1300+ Palestinians killed by Israel, most of them civilians; 14 Israelis dead, including three civilians and four soldiers downed by ‘friendly fire’.) Nader, who has always firmly condemned Israeli excesses, in its recent invasion but also in its equally deadly 2006 invasion of Lebanon, was excluded from the official 2008 presidential debates (as were, by the way, the Green and Libertarian candidates, never mind that the latter, Bob Barr, made his name as the conservative Republican congressman who championed the impeachment of President Clinton).

Contrast this insularity with French presidential campaigns:

Any candidate who gets 500 elected officials to support him or her gets a place in the first presidential round; last time, that made for 11 candidates, ranging from Besancenot on the far left to Le Pen on the far right. (My favorite: the representative of the party of hunting, fishing, and nature.) Each candidate got 90 minutes of free television time, to be dispersed as he or she liked. There’s even a rule decreeing that the news can’t give more time to one or the other. Each also has his or her own placard among the 11 displayed in front of voting places (like schools) before the election. Result: Almost five percent for the then 33-year-old postman from Neuilly. Continuing result: In a poll conducted this fall, only the mayor of Paris ranked higher as the most visible opponent of President Sarkozy; more than 50 percent of those polled gave Besancenot that designation. Never mind that compared to Olivier Besancenot Ralph Nader is Hilary Clinton, a parallel result could never happen in the United States. Not because Americans are inherently opposed to his views — remember, having made his name as a champion of consumers, Ralph Nader is hardly a flaming radical — but because the corporate-owned and establishment-inclined media would never expose his ideas to the general public on a regular basis. To them, Nader’s become a clown. They use their mockery of him as the perennial fringe candidate to try to drown out his ideas.

Contrast the treatment accorded Besancenot. During the last municipal elections, all the main television chains included him in their round-table of commentators.

This morning on France Culture, Besancenot and party philosopher Daniel Ben-Said were the featured guests and — a real change — neither the host nor any of the regular commentators mocked him. They may not agree with his ideas, they may even be skeptical of his motives, but in France, they — we (tear, tear) — understand that real freedom means freedom of ideas, that freedom to decide *requires* exposure to all ideas, that true Democracy also means Democracy on the table of thought.

This is why I want to raise my children in France where, no matter what their ideas, they can be heard.

PS: To read more about Olivier Besancenot — I realize I’ve left out many of the details on his platform — check this NY Times article, a bit less condescending than is the norm for the Times, even if the treatment is more along the lines of ‘those-wacky-Frenchies’ than my own focus of ‘why this couldn’t happen here,’ which of course would inherently criticize the reporter’s own journal.

PPS: I take it back about ‘less condescending.’ Note the Times headline (emphasis added): “Light on the Left Guides His *Comrades* Toward France’s Mainstream.” Notwithstanding the overall fair treatment his story gives to his subject, the reporter, or maybe it was the editor, attempts to set off reader bias with the use of the word ‘comrades.’

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