Danny the Red goes Green - but still makes mischief

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The Independent Online
HERE IS the joke going the rounds of the French National Assembly. "Q: How can you tell that Daniel Cohn-Bendit is German? A: He invades France every 30 years."

Danny the Red is back, and this time he is Green. Thirty years after leading the French student revolt of May 1968, Mr Cohn-Bendit has become a mainstream French politician, even though he is not French. He will head the list of the main French Green party, Les Verts, in the European Parliament elections next June.

In other words, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the born trouble-maker, the eternal boy, has become almost the first truly European politician, able to operate successfully in two EU countries. He sits at present in the European Parliament as a member of the German green party, the Grunen. His close friend and one-time revolutionary disciple, Joschka Fischer, is foreign minister in the pink-green coalition running Germany.

Mr Cohn-Bendit, 53, cannot claim to be the first pan-European politician because there is one rather perverse precedent. The late Sir James Goldsmith bankrolled two viscerally anti-European political movements and stood for election in both Britain and France. How successful he was is a matter of opinion.

How successful will Mr Cohn-Bendit be? Judging by his first week in the job, very successful, very entertaining - and very destructive. In the space of a few days, the youthful revolutionary turned middle-aged European federalist and ecologist has caused huge problems within the pink-red- green coalition running France.

He has infuriated the Socialist Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, by throwing salt in the wound of the one issue most calculated to divide the French left - illegal immigration. Mr Cohn-Bendit called in his acceptance speech before the Green conference for all illegal immigrants to be legalised. Worse, he said that such a grand gesture would help Mr Jospin win the presidential election in 2002, another taboo subject for the Prime Minister.

"Me, annoy the Prime Minister? Nooooo," Mr Cohn-Bendit said afterwards, opening wide his big boyish, mischievous blue eyes.

As energetic, eloquent and hirsute as ever, he has also infuriated the Communists, who remember the embarrassment he caused them in 1968. Mr Cohn-Bendit has set a target of making the Greens the second party of the French left, overtaking the ringard ("fuddy-duddy") Parti Communiste. He tried to soothe the Communists last week by describing their dull, gnome-like leader, Robert Hue, as "obviously not a Stalinist". Somehow this did not help.

Mr Cohn-Bendit is also far from universally loved within the French green movement. There is residual jealousy that such a "German cuckoo", as one green activist described him, should take the top place on their European election list, pontificating about "my ideas" rather than "our ideas".

Daniel claims a "double identity". He is German, but feels French. His parents fled Nazi Germany in 1933, and he was born at Montauban, just north of Toulouse in the French south-west. His parents, to his great grief at the time, returned to Germany in 1957, when he was 12. He insisted on returning to France to study when he left school, with consequences which briefly shook the world.

Cohn-Bendit was expelled from France after the evenements of May 1968. He became a German revolutionary, a kindergarten teacher, then a local politician in Frankfurt in the 1980s before emerging as a green and extreme European federalist in the 1990s. He is able to run for election in France because the Maastricht treaty allows any EU citizen to stand in any EU country in European or local elections.

He remains an engaging, playful figure, capable of generating great emotion, but also mocking himself. Until his return to France, he played football in a Frankfurt park with his friends every Sunday, wearing a shirt carrying the number 68.

Mr Cohn-Bendit now describes his revolutionary ideas of the 1960s as a mistake. He emigrated late, following many left-wingers of his generation, into the ecological movement. But he was always regarded as an awkwardly internationalist figure by the inward-looking German greens. He argued for German military action against the Serbs in Bosnia, and for wholesale support of the Euro.

His present position is an unusual mixture of European federalism, standard leftism and libertarianism: in favour of much greater power for Brussels; against nuclear energy; in favour of more government intervention to create jobs; for the legalisation of soft drugs.

Such views cut a jagged line across the Socialist, Radical, Communist and Green coalition which has been governing France, with remarkably few family rows, since last June. The Communists are sceptical on Europe and keen on nuclear power; the radicals are anti-Europe and tough on immigration. The Socialists are pro- European but cautious on immigration and jobs.

Mr Jospin is struggling to keep all these factions talking from one bland script. But Mr Cohn-Bendit famously refuses all scripts, and talks off the cuff. He is threatening to take on all the other parties - including the Greens' Socialist and Communist allies - by travelling around making speeches in the political fiefdoms of the party leaders.

He says he intends to break away from the normal dreary exchanges about federalism versus nationalism, the failings of the Brussels bureaucracy and the dangers of the Euro. He intends to purvey "une idee jouissive de l'Europe". This means, strictly speaking, a "joyous concept of Europe" but could also be translated "an orgasmic sense of Europe".

In other words, in the space of a few days, to Mr Jospin's great alarm, Daniel Cohn-Bendit has achieved the impossible. He has made the European Parliament elections interesting.