I was going to entitle this article "The French Galloway", but French comrades tell me that would be grossly unjust to Jean-Pierre Chevènement, the subject of the article.
Chevènement was a member of the Socialist Party and president of the Franco-Iraqi Friendship Society from 1985. In 1991 he resigned his post as Defence Minister - he would surely have been sacked otherwise - because he opposed the US war against Iraq in that year, which the French government supported.
In 1993 he split from the Socialist Party and launched a new party, the MDC.
The point of the story is that no-one on the French revolutionary left tried to hail Chevènement in 1991-3 as the figurehead of a new "broad" left, as the SWP has done with George Galloway.
The difference, so French comrades tell me, is that Chevènement's political course has been consistent. Galloway, it will be remembered, had different politics before 1993. In the 1980s he was a leftish (Stalinist) opponent of Saddam Hussein, supporting campaigns for sanctions against Iraq.
According to the French comrades: "Chevènement is fundamentally a Gaullist who thinks that the 'French nation' is the saviour of the world. It was from that angle that he joined with Mitterrand in 1965."
Chevènement was an important figure in Mitterrand's entourage and in the Socialist Party after 1970. He was the brains behind the "Common Programme" of the SP and the Communist Party in the late 1970s - but without ever breaking from his Gaullism.
"It was on the basis of his Gaullism that Chevènement made a break when Mitterrand [then president] accepted the Gulf War in 1991. It was because Jospin pursued a policy of 'a strong France in a strong Europe', conceived as a counterweight to US power, that Chevènement participated in the whole policy of Jospin's government, only opposing it mildly at the very end.
"Chevènement's Gaullism led him to get involved in milieus like the Franco-Iraqi Friendship Society, a foul milieu linked to Saddam. But I do not believe there was any financial corruption involved in his case."
When Chevènement went to Iraq in 1993, the book he wrote afterwards "contains no apologetics for the Saddam regime. It is above all a book directed against the USA and for France's 'Arab policy', according to which the Arab nationalist regimes could develop their progressive traits if they had the wisdom to listen to the voice of France."
Gilles Munier, current leader of the Franco-Iraqi Friendship Society, has conceded (Le Monde, 27 January 2004) that his society received funds from Saddam.
According to him: "Any company, oil or otherwise, which gained connections in Iraq through an intermediary would give that intermediary a commission...All that was done in the framework of the 'Oil for Food' formula. It was neither illegal, nor deprived the Iraqi people of what was due to it under that formula."
Asked directly, did the Franco-Iraqi Friendship Society profit from that system, he replied:
"Yes, for all the companies for which we secured introductions in Iraq and which went through with the business."
However, there is no evidence that Chevènement was involved in this. He has not signed the Franco-Iraqi Friendship Society's current appeal for the release of Saddam's deputy Tariq Aziz, signed by Galloway and a number of figures of the French far right.
"I should add that Chevènement has always very deliberately been vigilant against any shade of anti-semitism, and that he is a declared supporter of the existence of the state of Israel."
Chevènement, unlike Galloway, at one time led an organised left current in the Socialist Party. His group in the 1970s, CERES, claimed to be Marxist, though in fact, the French comrades point out, "the basis of its politics was the strengthening of the bourgeois state, of the French nation (hip! hip! hooray!), in order to make it better able to intervene in national and world politics..."
So: an anti-Americanism like Galloway's, an Arabism somewhat like Galloway's - but, the French comrades reckon, Chevènement "stands far above Galloway" in other ways. When Chevènement came out of the Socialist Party, unlike Galloway coming out of the Labour Party, he brought some activists with him, enough to make a small political party. Yet the French Marxists had enough sense not to hail him as the "inspirational" new leader of the left.
By Colin Foster