Boris Fraenkel

Trotskyist activist and philosopher

Boris Fraenkel, political activist and philosopher: born Danzig 1921; died Paris 23 April 2006.

Boris Fraenkel achieved his brief moment of notoriety in 1997 when he revealed the Trotskyist past of the French socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin. In the smaller world of the French far left he was known as an original thinker and an impressive speaker.

Born in Danzig (now Gdansk in Poland, but then a free city) in 1921, Fraenkel was active in Zionist circles, and with the rise of Fascism he considered moving to Palestine, but was unable to do so because of British immigration restrictions. He went to France in 1938 and moved to Switzerland in 1940, where he was interned. Here he met various exiled Jewish intellectuals, including the literary theorist Lucien Goldmann, and first became involved with Trotskyist politics.

Returning to France in 1949, he did not involve himself actively in politics. But in 1958 he believed, wrongly but understandably in the tense climate of the Algerian war, that Charles de Gaulle represented a threat of military dictatorship. The French Trotskyist movement was tiny and divided; Fraenkel opted for the group headed by Pierre Lambert which became the Organisation Communiste Internationaliste (OCI). Despite its insistence on Trotskyist "orthodoxy", the OCI attracted gifted intellectuals, notably the historian Pierre Broué.

Fraenkel held important responsibilities in the group, including the training of new recruits. One of his protégés was Jospin, a student at the ENA (the Ecole nationale d'administration), the prestigious college for civil servants. Fraenkel became his cornac ("elephant-keeper") and took him through a systematic study of basic Marxist theory as well as having long discussions with him.

Together with the publisher François Maspero, Fraenkel was involved in the journal Partisans, launched in 1961 and aimed at the new left formed by opposition to the Algerian war.

Fraenkel did not fit easily into the constraints of a disciplined organisation. He was becoming increasingly interested in the links between sexuality and politics, notably the ideas of the pre-war German Marxist Wilhelm Reich. (France was then a conservative society on sexual matters - the sale of contraceptives was only legalised in 1967.) Himself bisexual, Fraenkel became an advocate of sexual freedom.

In 1967 Fraenkel used the OCI presses to publish translations of the writings of Reich. He was promptly expelled from the OCI, accused of forming a "sexual-sectarian" clique.

In March that year Fraenkel gave an influential lecture to students at Nanterre on sexual repression. Perhaps its importance has been exaggerated (sex, drugs and rock'n'roll were not as central to the 1968 events as is often claimed), but he alarmed the French state. Being stateless (he got French nationality only in 1986), he was in June 1968 put under house arrest in a convent in Lozère. Reputedly he encouraged the Mother Superior to read Marcuse. Fraenkel received support from many parts of the left, but from his erstwhile pupil Jospin not a word.

Fraenkel remained a well-known figure on the left, as a translator (of Trotsky, Georg Lukács and Herbert Marcuse), writer and above all speaker. Despite his experiences he never renounced Trotskyism - in 2000, at the age of 79, he briefly joined the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire.

His revolutionary commitment inspired his intervention in the Jospin affair. In far-left circles, Jospin's Trotskyist past was well known, but as his career prospered, his enemies used it against him. This was massive hypocrisy - 30 years after 1968 there were many in French public life who had been youthful revolutionaries. Jospin stupidly denied the accusation. Fraenkel explained his intervention with contemptuous rage: "Trotskyism is not a shameful disease . . . it is not syphilis."

Fraenkel's chosen death - by jumping from a bridge into the river Seine at Paris - was a suitably dramatic end to an eccentric but fascinating life.

Ian Birchall