Alain Krivine (1941-2022) was a life long revolutionary socialist known for his activism since the May 1968 student revolt and general strike in France. Manus McGrogan, who interviewed him, recounts Krivine’s life and activism.
Illustration of Alain Krivine (1941-2022) by Manus McGrogan.
The French revolutionary left has lost one of its most prominent historical figures. Alain Krivine, best known for his activism during the events of May 1968, his candidacy for the French presidency in subsequent years, and longstanding leadership of the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist League (LCR), has died aged 80.
Krivine was born in Paris in 1941, into a Jewish Ukrainian family that had escaped nineteenth century antisemitic pogroms in eastern Europe. As a teenager he joined the youth wing of the French Communist Party, but quickly became a dissident over the party’s opposition to Algerian independence from France.
He then joined the Young Resistance network, encouraging young men not to enlist (or to desert) in the French army’s brutal war against the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), and later secretly sheltered and spirited FLN militants and materials across France. Back at the Sorbonne University as a humanities student, he was regularly involved in ‘clearing the streets’ of pro-French-Algerian fascist thugs, and supporters of the far-right paramilitary OAS gang.
By the early 1960s Krivine had been won to Trotskyism, and was eventually excluded from the Communist Party youth group for his oppositional activities. Undaunted, he co-founded the Revolutionary Communist Youth (JCR), a group he later characterised as ‘more Guevarist than Trotskyist’, due to members’ lionising of Latin American guerilla movements. The JCR were central to the many anti-war ‘Vietnam committees’ that sprang up across France in 1966-67.
On 3 May 1968, Krivine was one of several hundred political activists and students to occupy the courtyard of the Sorbonne. This was in protest at the University’s disciplining of Nanterre students (among them Daniel Cohn-Bendit) for their activity against the Vietnam war and French authorities. The forcible evacuation and arrest of the occupiers by the police sparked the student demonstrations and riots of May ’68, during which outrageous riot police brutality compelled trade union leaders to call a one-day general strike on 13 May.
Over a million people marched through Paris in protest, and within days, students and workers had spontaneously taken over their universities, factories, offices and shops. It turned into the greatest general strike the world had ever seen, with the country paralysed by the power of ten million workers. The government came close to meltdown and the President, Charles de Gaulle, actually retreated to consult with his generals at the German border, where he was advised (apocryphally) to ‘pull himself together’.
The JCR were in the thick of the action from start to finish, often featuring in film and photos of the events. Krivine himself can be seen in images haranguing crowds of students in the occupied lecture halls, and leading the JCR chants, megaphone in hand during the big marches. Hoping to make common cause with the workers, Krivine and the JCR led a march from the Sorbonne to the gates of the giant Renault-Billancourt factory, only to find that the CGT union had bolted the gates, fearful that the students’ radicalism might infect the strikers.
In July, the tide turned against the radicals, as a combination of police repression and the pressure of compromising trade union leaders saw the strike movement ebb and student occupations falter. The party of De Gaulle had won a crushing victory in the general elections of June, and the new hardline Interior Minister Raymond Marcellin suppressed radical groups, accusing them of being part of an international communist conspiracy. Eleven revolutionary organisations were banned and their leaders jailed, among them Krivine and several of his JCR comrades.
Yet despite the end of May’s mass movement, the JCR interpreted the events as a ‘great dress rehearsal’ for the revolution to come. With Krivine quickly freed, they regrouped as the Ligue Communiste, French section of the Fourth International. With a triumvirate leadership of Krivine, Daniel Bensaïd and Henri Weber, the Ligue stood out from the plethora of far-left and ultra-left small groups of ’68’s aftermath, by virtue of their greater organisation, sharp political analysis, and openness to new movements.
In May 1969, while doing his military service, Krivine made history as the first open revolutionary to stand in the first round of the French presidential elections, appearing on TV and papers with the slogan ‘Power does not lie in the ballot box’. But although the Ligue would promote him as the candidate of the ‘movement of May’, it was perhaps not surprising following the conservative Gaullist backlash that he could only poll 1% (still a creditable 236,000 votes).
In the 1970s the Ligue threw itself into a variety of campaigns and movements in colleges, universities and workplaces, welcoming the arrival of new social movements of women’s and gay liberation, antiracism, and building opposition to militarism and nuclear power. Always to the fore, Krivine sought to articulate the latest position in his articles for the Ligue’s newspaper Rouge.
In June 1973, he was back on TV news defending the Ligue’s molotov cocktail attack on a fascist meeting (and ensuing clash with the police) outside the Mutualité hall in Paris. This was the pretext for Marcellin to ban the Ligue and arrest Krivine again, despite future Socialist President François Mitterrand’s public intercession on his behalf.
But just as before, the Ligue resurfaced anew as the LCR, just in time for the 1974 presidential elections in which Krivine stood again. However, on this occasion he was eclipsed by another Trotskyist candidate, the bank worker Arlette Laguiller of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle). Fresh from her leading role in a bank strike, she campaigned on a ticket of ‘a woman, a worker, and a revolutionary’ gaining 2.5% (to Krivine’s 1.5%).
Thereafter, she would become the stand-out revolutionary candidate in French presidential elections, although she and Krivine successfully campaigned on a joint ticket to win seats in the European Parliament in 1999. In the 2000s it was the turn of dynamic young postal worker Olivier Besancenot (of the LCR) to stand in the presidential elections, scoring around 4% – a million or more votes – in both 2002 and 2007. It was Krivine who convinced Besancenot to stand, and mentored him in the process. In 2008, they both helped found the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) to take a broader radical left movement into the 21st century, whereupon Krivine would take a backseat in French politics.
Alain Krivine was a man of great energy, acuity and generosity of spirit. On a personal note, I interviewed him several times when researching my PhD on the French political underground of ‘the 68 years’ and he was always very warm, witty and forthcoming about his life as a militant.
The late Daniel Bensaīd spoke of Krivine’s selflessness in his autobiogaphy An Impatient Life:
He couldn’t be corrupted morally, materially or by the media. Alain was like a reassuring older brother, rigorously egalitarian, always ready to pitch in. He was always available, even in the middle of the night, to rush to the aid of a comrade caught in a police cell; happy to eat whatever was put in front of him and put up with the worst militant accommodation.
Leftists in France and worldwide have been effusive in their praise and tributes to him. Even opponents have struggled to say a bad word. Indeed, the office of President Emmanuel Macron (hardly a friend) issued a statement saluting Krivine’s ‘life of commitment and militancy, led with passion and a thirst for justice and equality’. The wily old Trotskyist would have cringed at this, especially as he backed the incendiary, anti-poverty gilets jaunes (yellow vests) movement of 2018-19 which Macron attempted to crush.
The last word should go to the NPA, which states on its website that: ‘Until the very end of his life, Alain never gave up the fight, or gave in to the notion that ‘You’ll get over it as you get older’.’ He will be sorely missed.
Manus McGrogan is a historian who has written widely on the events of May 1968 in France and their legacy, as well as the global radical movements of the 1960s and 70s. He is the author of Who the hell is Karl Marx.