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Street Fighting Man: How a Former Anarchist Revolutionary Plans to Save Europe

Europe's 1960s protest movement sought to chart a path to political power in the interest of a socialist agenda—a “long march through the institutions” is what they called it. But in his street fighting days, it’s safe to say that Dany Cohn-Bendit, the former enfant terrible of 1968’s Paris May, never imagined where this march would deliver him: ensconced at the European Parliament in Brussels, at the very pinnacle of the European establishment.

Of course, the staid atmosphere that the European Union’s political establishment—which has evolved  from the somber pathos of the World War II generation, to the empirical anonymity of central bankers who now hold sway—stands in stark contrast with Cohn-Bendit’s signature air of effervescent energy. But there are those who argue that Europe’s top-down political project will only survive if the continent’s infamous generation of grassroots political agitators is allowed to have its say. Indeed, after 50 years on the political scene, this may prove to be these tenacious former street revolutionaries’ final political intervention—and it’s only fitting that they’re putting up one last fight. 

“THE EU HAS ALWAYS made its greatest strides in times of crisis. This one’s no different,” Cohn-Bendit explains in urgent, rapid-fire sentences of Francophone-twinged German above the din at Café Leonhardt, a buzzing coffee shop deep in old West Berlin. “The EU’s doing just fine.”

At 67 years of age, one can still discern a reddish tint in Dany le Rouge’s short-cropped gray hair. The freckles, too, are there. But what’s changed decidedly is the substance of his political vision. No longer is it a libertine, classless society at the heart of his revolutionary plan for the continent; today the object of his considerable energy is a strong centralized United States of Europe, one that’s done away with mischievous nationalisms.

Though Cohn-Bendit today personifies a confident European Union—he is the front man for the continent’s Green Party in the European Parliament—he and others of the ’68 generation didn’t love the EU at first sight. Indeed, when the revolutionary utopias of the New Left withered in the aftermath of the student revolts, Cohn-Bendit and the Frankfurt-based anarchist group with which he was affiliated recalibrated their efforts to local, small-bore projects. Together with his friend from Frankfurt’s squatter scene—and Germany’s future foreign minister—Joschka Fischer, Cohn-Bendit infiltrated the assembly lines of automakers, published the agit-prop newspapers, and ran the Karl Marx Bookshop. Fischer went to work as an undercover factory agitator, while Cohn-Bendit took up the cause in an anti-authoritarian nursery school.

But eventually two larger-scale projects captured Cohn-Bendit’s imagination. The first was an unwieldy, new start-up party that called itself The Greens, which he intuitively saw a vehicle instigate social change from within the establishment. The second was the European Union. European leftists had tended to dismiss the EU as a Fortress Europe hopelessly in thrall to the forces of capitalism. But not Cohn-Bendit and Fischer. Instead, they saw the European project as an apt vessel for their utopian energies: The vision of a united continent without borders replaced that of a world without classes. In Germany, France, and elsewhere, the former scourges of Europe’s institutions became their fiercest guardians.  

Perhaps too fierce. Did their enthusiasm for the project blind them to the hazards inherent in a single monetary policy? Did the reality of Greece’s indebtedness simply not fit their picture of a federal Europe tied together by the euro? The revolutionaries of the 1960s were likewise spectacularly naïve about the objective potential for sparking rebellion in western Europe’s postwar proletariat. In the end, their stripe of radicalism alienated the working class. Could the same be said about a plea for “more Europe” when the rank-and-file European burgher seems to want less?   

Cohn-Bendit doesn’t buy this. The old anarchist slogan “Alles ist möglich!” (Everything is possible!) still infuses his determination. “There’s an acute imagination deficit” in Europe’s capitals, he says, gesturing with a hand. “Now is the time when we’ve got to be thinking about fundamentally restructuring the EU,” he says. “It’s not a question of ‘if’ but ‘how’.”  It’s a cause that still fills him with revolutionary ardor: “We’re working on a project that’s never been attempted before—the overcoming of the nation state and creation of something completely new,” he tells me from behind his rimless spectacles. “It’s a work in progress, and will always be.”    

But it’s precisely on the question of “how” that old ‘68ers now find themselves disagreeing. Of late, Cohn-Bendit has been at odds with the views of his old pal Fischer, who now spends his time as a consultant and pundit. Cohn-Bendit’s vision for twenty-first century Europe is a federalist union with a strong executive and a two-chamber legislature: one for representatives of the national governments, another directly elected by the demos. He pushes it all the time, everywhere he goes, even though popular faith in the EU is currently at an all-time low. Fischer also has high hopes for a United States of Europe, but he thinks that Europe’s chancellors and presidents will have to lead the way. Fischer has argued for a two-speed Europe, with a vanguard of committed states leading the way for more integration.

Fischer is right that it is the national leaders in Europe who still wield the real clout, but it is a point Cohn-Bendit tries his best to resist. His PR savvy is as astute as when the chubby redhead with a megaphone in hand was the face of France’s rising students and he has succeeded in making himself the ubiquitous face of the European Parliament, inevitably front and center on TV new reports out of Brussels, whether thundering against the persecution of gypsies or Hungary’s new media laws. Even beyond France and Germany, most Europeans are more likely to recognize Dany the Red than they are one of their own representatives in the EU’s legislature. But this speaks as much for the muted profile of the multinational parliament as for Cohn-Bendit’s notoriety.

Indeed, Cohn Bendit is often reduced to complaining about the latest instance of Angela Merkel using backroom dealing to circumvent open debate and parliamentary legitimacy. The punchless European Parliament, and the condition of democracy in general in the EU, are sore spots that, when Cohn-Bendit gets talking, quickly change his tenor. He tells me that he sometimes wonders whether Europe’s leaders “even know that there is such a thing as the European Parliament.”

That’s not to say that Cohn-Bendit hasn’t had the opportunity to leave the EU Parliament for the upper echelon of European politics. This year he turned down pleas (again) from the French Greens to run for president against Sarkozy. “I don’t even own a tie,” he said, “If I were elected president I’d kill myself. It would ruin my life. I don’t want to be followed around by body guards.” Cohn-Bendit leans back in his chair and takes a sip of his lactose-free latte machiato. At the end of his current term in Brussels, in 2014, he says he’s leaving the parliament. The long march through the institutions begun in the sixties is long over. “I’ll be 69. It’s time to do something different,” he sighs.

He’s already making plans. The World Cup in Brazil in 2014 is the perfect occasion to shoot a film about the dwindling rain forest. It would be difficult to imagine Dany Cohn-Bendit putting down his mega-phone for good.  

Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based author. His most recent book is Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic: An Alternative History of Postwar Germany.