Generation Mélenchon

Jean-Luc Mélenchon addresses journalists on June 2 during a campaign stop in Poitiers with Yannick Nadesan of the Communist Party and the city’s Green party mayor, Léonore Moncond’huy.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon addresses journalists on June 2 during a campaign stop in Poitiers with Yannick Nadesan of the Communist Party and the city’s Green party mayor, Léonore Moncond’huy.

Nathalie Cullell lives in a small French village of eight hundred people called La Cabanasse in the Pyrenees mountains, near the Spanish border. For some time, she’s been noticing that public services have been disappearing, one after the other. Schools are being closed, as are post offices. Her neighbors travel further to go to work. A cancer patient needing chemotherapy, she says, now needs to drive an hour and a half to the nearest big town, Perpignan.

In 2018, Cullell joined her local gilets jaunes movement. A news report from that time shows her standing by the side of the road, beating a barrel like a drum. “We have the feeling that the government is not only not listening to us but is actively hostile to those who make the region live”, she said. On Sunday, in the second round of France’s parliamentary election, Cullell will be one of 380 candidates running for the National Assembly as a member of NUPES (Nouvelle Union populaire écologique et sociale), a left-wing alliance seeking to win the majority currently held by Emmanuel Macron’s La République En Marche and its allies.

The French left has been in disarray since the deeply unpopular former president François Hollande left the presidency in 2017. NUPES is an attempt to revive it by bringing candidates from a range of left-wing parties under a single banner. Some of those candidates have no political experience: a baker who attracted media attention when he went on hunger strike to protect his undocumented employee became a candidate for the Greens; a housekeeper who led a twenty-two-month strike may now unseat Macron’s former sports minister in a district near Paris. Cullell is among these newcomers. A high-school French teacher by day, she hopes to strengthen the instruction of Greek and Latin in middle school, as well as Catalan. “I am not looking for a political career”, she says. “I love my job”. But she says that budget cuts are pushing France’s school system to privatization.

NUPES is less a new left than a new way of organizing France’s left-wing movements after the collapse of the Socialist Party under Hollande’s leadership. (In this year’s presidential elections, the Socialist candidate won less than 2 percent of the vote.) Its major platforms—among them higher minimum wages and a lower retirement age—are to some voters a return of old socialist politics. But they have a populist flavor, too. The group has also called for constitutional reforms such as more citizen referendums that would reduce the power of the French president. This alliance has so far proved successful. In the first round of the legislative election, held on June 12, NUPES came head-to-head with Macron’s party.

The parties that make up the alliance have coalesced around Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a controversial Socialist party defect at the head of the party La France Insoumise (France Unbowed). His party is joined in the alliance by the Greens, the Socialists, and the Communists. Known for his hard-left positions and hot temper, Mélenchon’s political views have shifted, especially on France’s foreign policy. He gave statements that have been considered pro-Putin—supporting Russian bombings in Syria; referring to Ukraine as “struggling to be a country”—up until this February. Most recently, he has said that he hopes to work with president Macron to support Ukraine. But it is not entirely clear how that will square with his long-held anti-NATO stance.

Much of Mélenchon’s success may have to do with the way he has positioned himself against Macron, who in an apparent desire to appease the country’s right has pushed for more security measures and anti-“separatism” laws aimed at French Muslims, including a sweeping law passed in the summer of 2021. Mélenchon has spoken out against such policies on the grounds that they stigmatize minorities. While much of French political rhetoric has focused on social issues, Mélenchon has also remained focused on economics—particularly appealing to voters at a time of rising costs. This has led some to speak of a “generation Mélenchon”, young voters energized by the candidate, especially in neighborhoods that might have previously voted for more traditional left-wing parties.

Mélenchon’s relatively high results in the presidential election this April, which put him just behind Marine Le Pen in qualification for the second round, showed his ability to bring together a wide range of people on the left, according to Olivier Rouquan, a political scientist. But how NUPES would govern is an open question. The electoral compromise is “fragile”, says Rouquan. Disagreements abound, down to how to pronounce the name of the new union. (Some say NUPES like “oops”, others prefer NUP-ES.) These differences may be particularly cleaving when it comes to the European Union. La France Insoumise has historically been Euroskeptic, unlike the very pro-Europe Socialist Party. The current NUPES platform claims that it is “prepared to break certain rules” in the EU while working to transform them. The shape this alliance will take after the election—whether in the case of victory or defeat—is unclear.

And the actual number of people voting on the left has decreased. Nearly 11 million voters turned out for representatives of left-wing parties in the presidential election. But the combined ticket brought nearly half that in the first round of the legislative election. Still, NUPES has been active in its campaigns, going door to door trying to drum up the vote. “There is really a will on the part of Mélenchon and his entourage not to simply add up votes, but to really try to create new identities, to succeed in aggregating left-wing votes but also to seduce non-voters”, says Laura Chazel, who studies left-wing populism at Sciences Po Grenoble. This may give the alliance an advantage against Macron’s party, which started campaigning late and has held itself at a distance from voters.

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On Tuesday, I traveled to Asnières-sur-Seine, a town northwest of Paris, to join a group of NUPES activists who were canvassing for their candidate, a Green party schoolteacher named Francesca Pasquini. She will be facing a center-right local official and a member of Macron’s party in the second round. In front of the Aldi, I met Yeelen Ravier, a sports journalist who is also an elected official of La France Insoumise in the city’s municipal government. She carried a black bag covered in Mélenchon stickers and flyers, which she distributed in packets to nearly a dozen volunteers. To Ravier, Asnières is “two cities in one”. There’s a lively area around the city hall, full of shops and well-to-do residents who tend to vote on the right. Then there are the neighborhoods made up only of social housing, with just a bakery and a “shoddy supermarket”.

Mustapha Gharbi, a recent law school graduate who has also been campaigning for NUPES, told me that you could see the results of Macron’s “destruction of public service” in the lack of hospital beds in the area. He had recently gone to the hospital for a renal colic, but there weren’t any beds left in the emergency room—he had to sit in a section devoted to drug treatment. “Emmanuel Macron and his government tried to fool France a bit and really make it lose its compass by doing politics of en meme temps, the policy of appealing to right and left”, he said. To French people, he told me, it was now clear that Macron was a right-wing politician.

Absenteeism is high in Asnières (about forty-five percent of residents sat out the first round of the legislative election), though lower than the national average. “People were disappointed” when Mélenchon didn’t make the second round in the presidential elections, said Ravier. The NUPES campaigners had chosen to go to neighborhoods with the lowest turnout in the first round, climbing up and down the stairs in a long apartment block. Outside, Ravier tried to encourage a boy to vote. “It’s really easy, you just need to go to the nearest school”. A teenager in a green tracksuit egged on his friend, “You’ll go vote, Omar! We’ll go with you!” One man told the campaigners he would have loved to vote for Mélenchon, but wasn’t “franco-français”—he didn’t have citizenship.

Ravier thinks the new alliance’s energy may stem, in part, from fear of the far right and its standard-bearers, like the presidential candidate Éric Zemmour. During the presidential election, she says, “we met many people when canvassing who said, ‘we’re too scared of Zemmour, we’re voting Mélenchon.’” Still, the far-right National Rally is poised to have its biggest gains ever in the National Assembly. Indeed, Cullell’s district in the south of France is one of sixty-three in which the left alliance will face a contest with the far right. NUPES, she says, is trying to offer “a positive message because we must question the spectacular progression” of the National Rally, which she noted had won fifty percent more votes in her region than in the previous election. “We will be concerned with solving their problems”, she says, rather than “carrying hatred and stigmatization of the other”.

Madeleine Schwartz is a regular contributor to The New York Review based in Paris. (June 2022).

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