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Jean-Pierre Chevènement: France's Eminence Grise

The 73 year-old is struggling to reach 1 percent in the opinion polls, but he keeps soldiering on. Jean-Pierre Chevènement was once a major political figure in France. But now, he is more likely to get the 500 endorsements than poll a lot of votes.

When you ask Jean-Pierre Chevènement what he thinks about Ernesto Che Guevara, who shares the same nickname ("the Che") as him, Mr. Chevènement smiles: "We're contemporaries."

Born in 1939, Mr. Chevènement is a kind of dinosaur of French political life. Forty years ago, in the famous (well... in France) Congrès d'Epinay, which led François Mitterrand to be the first Socialist elected to the French presidency in 1981, Jean-Pierre Chevènement was already a key figure in the political game... Even if he's almost as much known for his job as Minister of Home Affairs (1997-2000), as for his systematic resignations three times out of four ministerial jobs.

He doesn't say it, but he likes to see everyone, from liberal Arnaud Montebourg to far-right leader Marine Le Pen, stealing his ideas and claiming him as a mentor, whether it is about economics, Europe or republicanism.

That's because Mr. Chevènement isn't so much known for his tactical skills in the French political game but for his ideas, which he began to develop in the movement he gave birth to: CERES, for "Center of studies, research and socialist education," founded in 1966. This political trend was against neoliberalism, which rose to prominence in the Anglo-Saxon world in the second half of the '70s and was then adopted by French Socialists during their first flirt with liberal economic politics.

Until 2008, Mr. Chevènement's ideas were welcomed with the respect due to an old man who years ago, had been an important player.

In September of 1998, he nearly died after an operation where he was allergic to the anesthetics. He was eight days in a coma. It took him almost four months to come back to business, managing some issues from his hospital bed. He nicknamed himself "the miracle of the Republic."

After this serious incident, the turning point of his political career came, with his candidacy to the presidential election of 2002. He scored a little more than 5 percent, after having reached 12 percent in the polls. After the election, Socialists, and especially Lionel Jospin, the big loser of the poll, blamed him for the defeat of the left. Chevènement was marginalized on the French political scene, even if his 2007 endorsement for Socialist party candidate Ségolène Royal, put him back in front of the cameras.

It's the economic crisis that has brought Jean-Pierre Chevènement back to center-stage. Several candidates endorsed his critical vision of the lack of intervention of the European Central Bank (ECB) which, he thinks, should act as the Fed does, something which would change its status.

One can see with what pleasure he writes in his book that "of course (my) premonitory propositions haven't been heard, or, when they have been, it was too late (G20 in 2008), or insufficiently."

But his main intellectual contribution, in the identity crisis that France is going through, was about the very French idea of republicanism. Opposed to the development of multiculturalism, one can hardly say that Jean-Pierre Chevènement is a friend of the U.S.A. In his last book, he criticizes the Anglo-Saxon model of multiculturalism. We have to see that, even in France, integration is rejected in the name of a kind of inappropriate differentialism. Multiculturalism, even with the best will in the world, only delays or prevents integration and fuels the racism that it claims to fight. It can only lead to social fragmentation, and in the end, one could say ethnic confrontations, even if we mustn't forget the social background (youth unemployment, academic failure, etc.) which encourages it," he writes.

Whereas Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, the current president and his main contender for the presidential election in May, claim, as all the French do, to be "Gaullist" (it means a partisan of former war leader and president General de Gaulle) without really being it, Jean-Pierre Chevènement is a true Gaullist without laying claim to the distinction.

Even if he probably won't poll more than 1 or 2 percent at the next election in May, he might succeed in the task he set himself, in this strange but telling sentence: "to get things moving."