Daniel Cohn-Bendit: 'No one has dared tell the French left that we live in a world of market forces'

The Monday Interview: Green MEP
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We walked into a corner brasserie in the 15th arrondissement for a coffee and a chat. Any interview with Daniel Cohn-Bendit becomes a chat.

The bar owner - a grumpy, brutal-looking man in his late 50s - stared at Cohn-Bendit. He said suspiciously: "I know your face. Haven't I seen you somewhere?"

Cohn-Bendit, dressed in blue-jeans, black shirt and rumpled sports jacket, like a radical university lecturer, gave an elfin grin. He squeezed le patron's elbow and sat down in a corner.

I whispered to the bar-owner: "It's Danny Cohn-Bendit".

"Ça alors," le patron said, rushing over to give Cohn-Bendit a hug. "We did the barricades together in '68, you and I. We are old comrades, you and I."

For many people, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, 60 years old, will forever be "Danny the Red", the cheeky, ginger-haired, Franco-German, student revolutionary, who led the Paris student-worker revolt of May 1968. In truth, Cohn-Bendit has long since metamorphosed into Danny the Green, a French, then a German Euro MP, a "liberal-libertarian" ecologist and militant pro-European.

Come another May, come another French rebellion, Danny is back; this time on the side of the establishment. Sort of.

In the vociferous, confusing European referendum campaign in France, muddling towards an uncertain conclusion next Sunday, Danny the Red has become Danny the Blue (with Yellow Stars). He has been the single most passionate, energetic and persuasive campaigner for the "yes" camp.

Cohn-Bendit has addressed 36 political meetings. He has appeared on a dozen television programmes. He has been called a "social traitor". He has had eggs thrown at him. He has been hailed by ex-president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing - who was a senior, financial apparatchik of the bourgeois, imperialist French state in 1968 - as a "true European, a political visionary".

As voting day approaches, Cohn-Bendit admits to being anxious, even alarmed. He hopes that, in the final days of campaigning, a European instinct, or reflex, in France will prevail, and that the country will vote narrowly "yes" as it did to the Maastricht Treaty in 1992.

However, Cohn-Bendit is far from sure that the "yes" side will win. And he fears that his vision of Europe's future cannot survive a French defeat.

"A French 'no' will be the beginning of a period of confusion, or recrimination, of gradual unwinding of what we have already achieved in Europe. I fear that, for once, the right-wing press in Britain is right. A French "no" would be the prelude to an attempt to impose a purely economic vision of Europe, a market vision. [Rupert] Murdoch would jump for joy."

Such joy might be short-lived, Cohn-Bendit says. A French "no", bringing a cascade of rejections in other countries, would be "unreadable". Even in France, there would be right-wing and left-wing, pro-European and anti-Europeans "noes". A Dutch "no", or a Czech "no" or a British "no" would be different from a French "no".

In such circumstances, the single European market, which even British Eurosceptics say that they support, might not survive.

The central oddity of the French campaign, to British ears, is to hear left-wingers denounce the EU constitution as a hard capitalist, Thatcherite-Reaganite-Blairite plot. Had not the Daily Mail told us that it was a statist, socialist, Gallic conspiracy?

How would Daniel Cohn-Bendit campaign for the constitution in Britain? Would he use the same arguments as in France?

"Yes, I would use exactly the same arguments. If you have to use different arguments in different countries, that suggests that you are hiding something."

"To the French, I say, look at the world as it is today. Your independence, that of France, of Germany, depends, and will depend more in the future, on a strong Europe, a political Europe, as well as an economic Europe, which will defend our interests, which are not always those of the US, and may not be those of China or India."

"Here, for the first time, is a treaty which talks of the EU as a political idea, which talks of the need for social policies, of a social market. Here we have a treaty, which is far from perfect, but lays the basis of common values and clearer structures for a strong, united and political Europe for the future."

"And to the British, I would say exactly the same thing. Within Europe you can continue to play your role as a bridge to America. Outside Europe, you will not be a bridge but a doormat."

"If you, the British, were 70 per cent against the decision to join the Americans in the war in Iraq, as the polls say, then draw the obvious conclusion from that. The way to avoid such choices in the future is to be part of a strong Europe."

Daniel Cohn-Bendit's father was a lawyer who was forced to flee Nazi Germany in 1933, after defending victims of political and racial oppression. Danny was brought up in France but claimed German citizenship in the 1960s to avoid French military service.

After the events of May 1968, he was expelled to Germany as an "undesirable". He built a new career in local, then Green and European politics. He remains one of the freshest and most original political voices in Europe: a man willing to remove boundaries between ideologies as well as countries.

The night before our interview, I watched him in action at a Green debate for the "yes" camp at Les Halles in central Paris. The other platform guests spoke for ten minutes. Cohn-Bendit spoke, brilliantly, for one hour and 20 minutes.

He pretended to be a history professor in 2040, looking back on the difficult birth of a united Europe. By then, EU nation states remain but Europe has a strong, single market economy, a single foreign policy and defence force. The president of the EU - a Green - has just gone to Washington to help the sullen Americans to sort out their excessive national debt.

This is a provocatively utopian vision - deliberately so. Cohn-Bendit's point is to place the debate where he says that it belongs: on the broad motorway of history, not in the back-streets of minute, personal and ideological quarrels.

"People say to me, 'At least, the French are taking Europe seriously at last.' Are they? I don't think so. The constitution is being used, like cobblestones, as a source of missiles. Here, look at article 164, that proves that Europe is becoming a liberal conspiracy. Boom. I lob that at your head, No, look at article 333, that proves the opposite. I hurl that in your face."

"You can always mine the text for ideas that are not exactly to your liking but that's not the point. In any case, many of the arguments of the 'no' side are simply mendacious. 'The treaty will put an end to the secular state in France.' That is rubbish. Lies. 'The treaty will end the right to abortion.' Ridiculous."

There have always been anti-European forces of both right (sovereigntist) and left (anti-capitalist) in France. What has changed is the rise of Euroscepticism in the centre-left, Cohn-Bendit's own political "family" which has traditionally been pro-European.

The "swing votes" in the referendum - the votes which shift from "yes" to "no "in each batch of confusing polls - are almost all from the Socialists and Greens.

Partly, Cohn-Bendit says, this is a protest vote against a stumbling centre-right government. Partly it has been fomented by the formerly pro-EU, Socialist, ex-prime minister Laurent Fabius, for reasons of personal ambition.

But Cohn-Bendit - the former left-wing revolutionary, a self-confessed "realo" or centrist since the late 1980s - says that something about the French left is oddly "frozen" and inward-looking.

"No one has dared to tell them that we live in a world of market forces. That does not mean that you have to accept the extreme religion of Thatcherism or even Blairism. Market forces can be married with social responsibility, a social market."

"That's still not an argument that you can make with a large part of the left in France

"They believe that you can still run France as if it were the 1960s. They believe that the French 'social model' must be the best, even if it is failing. There is a kind of undeclared nationalism of the left."

"And there is another problem in France, a deadly virus. It is called the presidency, the ambition to be president. Fabius was nowhere, but he wanted to be president. He knew that it would take an earthquake in the Socialist Party to give him a chance. So, he helped to cause an earthquake."

It has been reported that Cohn-Bendit has been so disgusted by the campaign - and the personal attacks - that he intends to abandon politics. No, he says, he will always be involved in politics, German, French and European.

However, he says, he will probably not stand again for the European Parliament in 2009. "I will be 64 then. Do I really want to stand for office at 64?"

I remind him of the Beatles song: "Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm 64?". That came out in 1967, the year before Danny Cohn-Bendit, aged 23, became the world's most famous revolutionary.

"It was a beautiful song," he said. As I left the bar, I asked le patron whether he had truly fait les barricades with Cohn-Bendit in 1968.

"Yes, of course," he said. "And we still need a revolution in France. We should be more like your country, like Britain. France will never succeed until we have the right to hire and sack people whenever we like."

The veteran of the barricades had become a man of the right, then? No, he said, he was still a man of the left. And therefore stoutly for the "non".

I told him that Cohn-Bendit was for the "oui".

"What? Really? He's changed sides then."

A truly confusing campaign in a truly confusing country.

The CV

* BORN: 1945 into a German-Jewish family in France.

* EDUCATED: Odenwald-Schule, Germany; University

of Paris, Nanterre.

* May 1968: Led student protests against France's higher-education system.

* May 1968: Expelled from France as a 'seditious alien'.

* Post 1968: teacher, ecologist

* 1989 honorary Frankfurt municipal councillor.

* 1994: German MEP for the Green Party.

* 1999: French MEP for Les Verts.

* 2001: Green co-leader in the European Parliament.