Danny the Green: Daniel Cohn-Bendit

Once the fiery leader of the May 1968 revolt, Danny the Red has metamorphosed into one of Europe's most popular advocates of environmental causes

Last Sunday evening, amid the blow-dried, smart-suited pols (and polettes) on French TV, there appeared an unshaven, open-shirted, frizzy-haired, 60-something man with piercing blue eyes and a cheeky, elfin smile. He looked like an ageing university lecturer or a veteran folk singer.

This unusual figure had just triumphed in the French part of the European elections – or what he later called a "small-minded provincial battle". He had led an unlikely assortment of greens, bourgeois-bohemian trendies and small farmers to become the third largest force in French politics. His Europe Ecology coalition had come within a few thousand votes of pushing the main French opposition party, the Socialists, out of second place in the French part of the European poll.

Asked by the television presenter if he now planned to run for Président de la République in 2012, the unshaven elf with piercing blue eyes snorted. "I would be a terrible presidential candidate," he said. "And I have no interest in being terrible." Once a trouble- maker, always a trouble-maker.

In any case, the TV presenter had missed an important point. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, 64, born in France of German and French parents, would not be eligible to run for the French presidency. As President Général de Gaulle once angrily discovered, Cohn-Bendit is not French. He is German.

When he was known as "Danny the Red", for the colour of his hair and the colour of his politics, Cohn-Bendit helped to lead the French student revolt of May 1968. He has long since changed his political colouring to Danny the Green and to Danny the "blue with yellow stars". As a French, then a German, Euro MP for the last decade he has become a "liberal-libertarian" and fiercely pro-European ecologist. No politician in Europe makes the dreary, unwelcome case for Europe more convincingly than Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

In an interview with The Independent in 2004, he took on unthinking British Euro-scepticism in a couple of pithy sentences. "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." On a recent lecture tour to the US, after he spoke brilliantly for 90 minutes on European and world politics, a Congressman asked admiringly: "Who is this guy? Why isn't he running the EU?"

In the European election campaign just ended – a campaign that he began last year, long before anyone else – Cohn-Bendit made the case for a new kind of European politics: based on the free market but not obsessed by it; careful of the environment, but scornful of eco-fundamentalism; convinced that Europe is the answer, not the problem.

His unlikely allies included José Bové, the anti-market, previously anti-European, small farmer's leader, and Eva Joly, the Norwegian au pair who became a successful corruption–busting French judge. In their joint election poster, Cohn-Bendit, the retired revolutionary and Joly, the retired judge, looked oddly like a bachelor brother and spinster sister.

How did these unconventional, barrier-flattening ideas and alliances triumph with the French electorate? They did not. What triumphed was the personality of Cohn-Bendit: humorous, warm, acerbic, quirky and able to talk fluently about complicated ideas without stumbling into political verbiage.

Here was the great paradox of last Sunday's result (a 16.3 per cent vote for Cohn-Bendit's coalition, by far the highest ever "green" score in France). Cohn-Bendit is popular because he is the antidote to the vain, self-obsessed, personality-driven, imperial presidency-skewed politics of France (and not just France). And yet Sunday's result was largely a vote not for ideas but for the attractive, anti-political and anti-personality personality of Cohn-Bendit himself.

Cohn-Bendit has spoken since Sunday's "victory" of creating a new force in French and European politics that would link-up with, or replace, the old dormant forces of the social-democratic centre-left. At the same time, he says that he has no interest in running for national election, either in France or Germany. How he can do one without the other is unclear.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit was born on 4 April 1945 in Montauban in south-west France. His father was a German-Jewish lawyer who was forced to flee Nazi Germany in 1933, after defending victims of political and racial oppression. His mother was French.

Danny was brought up in France without any legal nationality. At 18, to avoid French military service, Cohn-Bendit took German nationality and has kept it ever since. He is a passionate football fan. Asked the "Norman Tebbit question" – which national team does he support? – he always answers: "France, because they play more attractive football than Germany".

In 1968 he was an anarchist student at Nanterre university, just west of Paris. It was Cohn-Bendit who led the initial protests at Nanterre in March and April – starting with a demand that boys and girls should be able to sleep together – which blossomed into nationwide, full-scale revolt in May.

When President de Gaulle discovered that Cohn-Bendit was technically a German, he had him expelled as an "undesirable". The ex-student revolutionary worked in an alternative kindergarten in Frankfurt in the 1970s before building a new career in local, then Green and European politics. He also played in a local Frankfurt football team, always wearing the number 68 on his back.

As a liberationist in the 1970s, Cohn-Bendit put his name to an ill-judged book which came back to haunt him 30 years later – and again last week. Describing his experiences as a kindergarten teacher, he said that he had, on occasion, allowed small children to open his flies and caress him. When the book resurfaced in 2001, he repudiated it as a foolish, young man's provocation. Parents and children came forward to say that Cohn-Bendit was an excellent kindergarten teacher and no paedophile.

Last Thursday, in a live TV debate, the former centrist presidential candidate, François Bayrou, panicked because he knew that Cohn-Bendit was overtaking him in the polls. He accused the Green leader – who was once a close friend – of having "pushed people towards inadmissible behaviour with children". Result: collapse of the Bayrou vote; and a wave of sympathy for Danny.

Since his triumph in the European elections, Cohn-Bendit has been both minimising his success and claiming that a new political era is born.

In an interview with Liberation, on Monday he said that he hoped to turn his rag-tag alliance into a "new form of political movement" for the 21st century. This would not be a political party of the kind that "already exists everywhere and is failing everywhere". He suggested that the new movement would be a kind of coalition of special interest groups and more traditional political parties, which would try to break down – or harness – the growing hostility to politics and politicians. Further details on application.

In an interview with Der Spiegel, he said the dismal results of the centre-left across Europe proved that social-democratic parties were now a spent force. Labour in Britain, the SPD in Germany, the PS in France were "lifeless structures that have no perspectives in society. They have no future...They need to suggest alternatives, take risks."

This meant, he suggested, swallowing the market-orientation of Blairism while finding some way to preserve the best of the European systems of social protection. It meant grasping the need to save the planet whilst promoting "green" economic opportunities.

The poor turnout in the European elections was proof, he said, that we needed more Europe, not less. "We need to liberate the European elections from their national constraints, we need to Europeanize them... We cannot continue with these small-minded, provincial battles and call them European elections."

Five years from now, he predicted, top people in the parliament would be elected directly on "Europe-wide" lists. "It's just a shame that I won't be there to be a part of it. I've spent my life campaigning for it. When it finally happens, I will likely be too old and no longer there to experience it."

One of the slogans of May 1968 was "Prenons nos désirs pour des réalités" ("Take our desires for realities"). Sometimes Daniel Cohn-Bendit, for all his new pragmatism, still seems to be stuck in a 1968 time-warp, muddling ideals with realities. At his best, his wit and his sincerity make him one of the freshest and most original political voices in Europe: a man willing to erode boundaries between ideologies as well as countries.

A life in brief

BORN: Montauban, France, 4 April 1945.

FAMILY: Born into German-Jewish family in France. Lives with his wife, her elder son and their son in Frankfurt.

EDUCATION: He attended the Odenwaldschule in Heppenheim near Frankfurt and studied sociology at the University of Nanterre, a suburb of Paris.

EARLY LIFE: Committed political activist who took part in the French riots of 1968. Following his expulsion from France, moved to Frankfurt where he continued his activism.

CAREER: Joined the Green Party in 1984. Hosted Literaturclub, a Swiss TV show, from 1994 to 2003 and since January 2002 he has served as co-president of the Greens/European Free Alliance group in the European Parliament.

HE SAYS: "It's wrong to say that youngsters are not political today. They are different. They are more sensible, in some ways fearful, but not less political."

THEY SAY: "Daniel Cohn-Bendit is the most dangerous scoundrel in France." Then French President Charles de Gaulle reflects on his actions during the Paris riots of 1968.

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