Rebel of the boulevards finds peace with German Greens
MISSING PERSON; No 45: Daniel Cohn-Bendit
Monday 11 December 1995
Today, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, now 50, insists that he has lost none of his ideals. The only difference: "In 1968, I'd have said I was a libertarian revolutionary. Now, I am a libertarian radical reformer."
In 1968 he was considered so dangerous that there was a furious row when he was allowed into Britain for 24 hours.
Now Mr Cohn-Bendit is a regular panelist on German and French chat shows, as a distinguished if still provocative thinker. He even has his own literary programme on Swiss and German television. His red hair, which won him his nickname, has softened in hue, as have his politics. A leading member of the German Greens and deputy mayor of Frankfurt since 1989, he is a member of the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
The man who helped to rip up cobblestones in Paris still likes challenging the norms. He caused ructions in the mostly pacifist Greens, for example, when he said the West should use force in Bosnia.
The headlines from Paris 1968 ("Europe's most beautiful city came to a standstill") can seem familiar in 1995, even if we do not have the dramas of "Boulevards blaze", or "Police seize Sorbonne". But Mr Cohn- Bendit insists that the two sets of protests are too different to be usefully compared.
"One can't compare apples with pears, except to say that they're both fruit. '68 was about changing the future when there was a future. Now it's about having a future at all. It's much more affected by fear," he said.
Mr Cohn-Bendit believes 1968 was both a victory and a defeat. "We won socially and lost politically," he said. "The societies of then and now are not comparable. We're morally much more open, but politically we did not succeed."
He speaks both as a Frenchman and as a German. His parents, German Jews, fled Germany after Hitler came to power. Daniel grew up in both France and Germany. As a child, he spoke little German. Now, he is bilingual, literally and metaphorically. He says of himself: "I am a Grenzganger", literally a "crosser of borders". ''I have a European identity.''
From this perspective, he is half-sympathetic towards the French government's attempts to make huge cuts: "Reform of the health insurance system is necessary and has been necessary for 10 or 15 years."
He complains, too, of France's "inflationary budgets". He wants France to be able to join a single European currency, which will only be possible if France brings its budget deficit under control. He argues that the government's latest problems are partly of its own making.
"The French did not take the Maastricht criteria seriously. And the later you make changes, the more difficult it is to become compatible," says Mr Cohn-Bendit. Above all, he criticises the high-handed way in which the cuts have been imposed, which, he says, reflects the inflexibility of the system. Traditionally the French boasted of the "stability" of their system.
Mr Cohn-Bendit argues that the events of recent weeks show this was a false stability: "In France people just have two choices. They can say 'yes', or they go on to the streets."
In Germany the system provides room for manoeuvre. "Through the federal system, far more groups are involved," he said. "It is sometimes complicated and long-winded. But the entire society is much more involved than it was before 1968."
Now he insists negotiations in France are "essential". The worst-case scenario is if the strikes "rot away", without any real agreement. "That must not be allowed to happen."
We Loved It So Much, the Revolution is the name of a book and television series Mr Cohn-Bendit authored in the 1980s. But life has moved on: "Now, I have more trust in institutions. I'm older, and the institutions have changed, too."
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