Where next for Nupes?
René Gimpel reports on the enthusiasm and success brought about by uniting the left, but warns of the dangers and pitfalls that come with a flawed programme
September brings an end to the summer schools and universities of the leftwing parties which make up the coalition known as Nupes (Nouvelle Union Populaire, Écologiste et Sociale - or New People’s Ecologist and Social Union). Welded together by Jean-Luc Mélenchon to form an electoral bloc with his own party, La France Insoumise (France in Rebellion) the coalition resulted in successful gains in National Assembly seats. This followed the presidential election, in which LFI candidate Mélenchon came a good third.
LFI concluded its summer university on August 28, at Chateauneuf-sur-Isère in the Drôme, where several thousand militants heard Mélenchon deliver the closing address, and flags of the affiliated parties fluttered alongside those of LFI. Speeches had been given by leaders and delegates from the Parti Communiste Français, the Parti Socialiste and Europe Écologie les Verts (Europe Ecology, the Greens). These parties had sealed an agreement which enabled them to stand candidates in every constituency, depriving Emmanuel Macron’s La France en Marche (Forward France) from returning to the National Assembly with the absolute majority it had previously enjoyed.
Greeted with shouts of “Resistance” and “Popular Union”, Mélenchon clearly understood and integrated the new political reality. He used the opportunity presented by the summer university to strengthen ties with delegates attending from the sister parties. His aim was to reinforce and consolidate the coalition in case the National Assembly was dissolved and a new election called. His speech was less ham-fisted than on previous occasions. Mélenchon paid homage to Grégory Doucet, the Green mayor of Lyon, France’s third city. He also saluted Olivier Faure, first secretary of the PS and a member of the National Assembly: “I say this: the union within our family is made possible only if we conceive, in our thinking, of a complete rupture with capitalism.”
Following interventions by Léon Deffontaines (PCF) and Léa Balage El Mariky (EELV), the PS’s Jean-Pierre Jouvet remarked, to a joyous crowd: “What a reception for a socialist … For years the PS was reduced to tail-ending the annual gatherings of Medef [France’s largest employer federation]. This is a complete break!”
LFI is taking inspiration from the wave of strikes and revolts in the UK against the rising cost of living. Mathilde Panot, leader of the Insoumise bloc in the assembly, reinforced Mélenchon’s message. In her view the present moment is a countdown to a dissolution of the National Assembly.
The PCF held its summer university in Strasbourg. The main address was given by its leader, Fabien Roussel, to a crowd of 800 members and sympathisers. The consensus was favourable, though there were dissenting voices from more critical comrades, who noted an absence of campaigns for mobilisation around green issues, feminism and anti-racism. Undaunted, Roussel claimed that communism has never been so relevant as today. He is hoping for an autumn of strikes and social mobilisation, claiming that the left must occupy the streets, “because it lost the elections.” To the surprise of many, Roussel also cited Medef, with whom he would like to meet in order to hammer out an agreement on fiscal reform and capital taxation.
Most attendees expressed their satisfaction with Fabien Roussel. As one comrade put it, “We’ve emerged from the shadows and communists exist again - something which has not happened since 2007, thanks to Nupes.” According to Roussel, the electoral campaign brought the PCF 3,068 new members, of which it now has around 40,000. But, according to Yann Le Lann, a sociologist who led one of the 69 workshops on offer, the PCF really scores best among the elderly, with most new recruits to the left opting for Mélenchon. Le Lann explained that young people living in precarity and zero-hours contracts, along with victims of structural racism, do not turn to the PCF. The latter is primarily a home for poorly paid, middle-rank, white-collar workers.
One militant expressed her dismay that Roussel had opened his speech by congratulating elected Strasbourg communists for their complicity in voting down the provision of funds to build a new mosque. “It’s frightening to see that the only issue is a stigmatisation of religious practice, when this is really not the problem.” She had attended Le Lann’s workshop and quoted the sociologist: “There is neither a communitarian nor a Muslim vote. Rather there is a common experience of systemic racism.”
The Parti Socialiste held its summer ‘campus’ at Blois, in the Loir-et-Cher. The message was that the PS has never been so healthy since it found its way again with the union of the left. Olivier Faure arrived to deliver his address on August 27, flanked by his new-found comrades, LFI deputies Clémentine Autain and Alexis Cochère, EELV’s presidential candidate, Yannick Jadot, and Frédéric Boccara from the PCF. Faure was given a standing ovation. “Proof that Nupes is effective is that it prevented 200 candidates from Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National from going through to the second round,” he said. Clémentine Autain hailed “the political acumen of the PS leadership, without which those 13 days and 13 nights of negotiation would not have happened”.
Not all socialists agreed. The old guard - grandees from the past - expressed their reservations. Manuel Valls, prime minister under president François Hollande, wondered aloud what on earth he had in common with Clémentine Autain. Faure hit back, pointing out that ‘enemy brothers’ had become ‘blood brothers’, adding “It’s by making the left stronger that we socialists will become stronger. Who among us seriously believes we can return to the past?”
If, on the parliamentary side, Boris Valland, president of the PS assembly members, drew a favourable balance sheet of working with LFI, PCF and EELV, other PS parliamentarians are not keen on the ‘Mélenchonisation’ of their party. Nostalgics for the days when the PS could rule in France under the Fifth Republic are irritated by Mélenchon’s character and behaviour and, along with some powerful regional party figures, they are manoeuvring to prevent a complete assimilation with Nupes. But manoeuvres do not mean concrete action. “Frankly, I can’t see what these old deputies think they can do. They have nothing to offer,” says a pro-Nupes comrade. “Faure has emerged with enhanced authority after winning his gamble. His line now has majority backing, even if in the party he cuts an isolated figure.”
At any rate, the PS intends to negotiate hard on the question of the 2023 elections to the Senate, France’s upper chamber. It already has by far the largest number of senatorial deputies in Nupes.
The ecologists of EELV faced a different set of problems at their summer gathering in Grenoble. Constantly promising a ‘refoundation’, the Greens always stumble on the matter of motions and resolutions - a contentious issue which many say needs to be resolved when they meet for their winter conference in December.
Viewed from the outside, this endemic preoccupation with internal selection rules appears “hallucinatingly irrelevant”, according to a comrade at the gathering (a whole evening devoted to karaoke seemed to confirm the point!). The complexity of the resolution system puts off neophytes in the party, while the practice of distributing key party positions according to tendencies which confront each other at each congress simply leads each bloc to defend its territory and to intrigue against the others. “The system brings difference to the fore,” explained David Cormand, national secretary between 2016 and 2019:
One defines oneself in relation to other positions. It’s the heritage of the founding groups who wanted to restrict the freedom of action of their leaders for fear of decisions taken to the detriment of one or other of the groups. And this has been going on for 20 years …
This obstacle-laden path to more cohesive programming puzzles other European green movements. However, all the green parties reflect these tensions in one way or another. They arose mostly from libertarian associations and, having gained members, they wanted to avoid what they saw as the bureaucratisation and conformity of other ‘left’ parties. It is only now, having to face electoral competition, that the cadres are coming to realise that a more disciplined practice will be required. In one workshop, Mélanie Vogel, co-president of the Parti Vert Européen (European Green Party), said: “The more that green parties have assumed responsibilities, the more their leaders have been strengthened.” This was a point reinforced by the assembly deputy, Sandrine Rousseau, who explained that it was urgent for her party to place itself at the service of society and not just to debate within itself: “It’s for us to reach out to people in struggle.”
What now? The summer schools highlighted both the different conceptions each party has towards the coalition and their projects for its future. The autumn and winter party congresses will be crucial. Either the union binds itself further or it risks breaking apart. For the moment, the four parties are working more or less in tandem on the critical political and social issues facing France and its working class, as well as the belief that a return to the ballot box will happen before the National Assembly’s term runs out.
Fréderic Sawicki, a political analyst, explains the situation thus: the political moment is binding the union, but underlying tensions exist because, out of Nupes’s 151 assembly deputies, LFI holds 75 of them and this does not necessarily reflect the real electoral strengths of its component parts. Especially as Nupes was put together “from on high, from the top”, according to Sawicki.
LFI has nudged Nupes into a greener agenda, without abandoning its anti-capitalist position. Shifting the centre of gravity is the Mélenchonist strategy to hold the coalition together, come what may. On the other hand, Mélenchon’s pronouncements on Taiwan revived doubts on the left. He referred to Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan as a provocation, for which he was thanked by the Chinese ambassador, as well as for his consistent support for a one-China policy. These remarks were criticised by the PS and EELV - the agitprop behaviour of LFI’s deputies in the Assembly does not sit well with the more consensual practices of their partners.
The goodwill shown by LFI members and deputies towards the other parties should encourage others to persevere in the coalition for the moment. Thomas Portes, LFI deputy for Seine-Saint-Denis, explained: “We’ve been the main force, but we’ve broken the image of sectarianism in the eyes of the other parties.” Portes’s hopes for Olivier Faure’s victory at the next PS congress, especially as the Socialists - affectionately referred to as “la vieille maison” (the old house) - are the most proactive of Nupes’s constituent groups. Perhaps this is not surprising when one considers the catastrophic political fortunes suffered by the PS following Hollande’s five-year presidency and Valls’ premiership. One PS deputy enthused, in the revived euphoria that permeates the party: “If we believe we’re the best within Nupes, let’s prove that we are.” In other words, seize the leadership from LFI.
Nupes has all the elements of a popular front and it is instructive to look at the government of Léon Blum, France’s first socialist prime minister. Formed in 1936 from socialist and socialist-affiliated parties, and joined by the communists, the government lasted barely two years before falling apart. While in power the popular front enacted some progressive legislation, including the 40-hour week, but rightwing hostility, coupled with the menace of German and Spanish fascism, paralysed the government into indecision, while its different parties remained at loggerheads.
Nupes is, of course, not in office, but its parties, with their separate agendas, resemble those of the popular front. It is not hard to imagine a difference which splits the coalition - be it a response to the energy crisis, to Ukraine or to some internal French controversy. Nupes’s parties are keen on street rallies and demonstrations, but, as in the UK, these have limited political clout, even if they temporarily raise morale. What is missing is a principled Marxist response from any of the parties - one which would create a minimalist-maximalist approach to every facet of Nupes’s programme. It would spell out clearly a requirement to find common cause with groups which have remained outside Nupes - for instance, Lutte Ouvrière.
The nature of parliamentary politics and coalitions within them do inhibit resolute action, when so often this is needed. Yet it can be done. Bolshevik tactics in the Russian duma provide an example, because under Lenin’s guidance they maintained a disciplined and centralised response to various situations. There was programmatic cohesion - vital in a situation where the Bolshevik fraction of the Social Democrats did not control the party’s overall direction.
The largest component of Nupes, the LFI, suffers from Mélenchon’s erratic leadership. His appeal to the ‘left’ - understood as everyone to the left of a centrist social democracy - leaves it unclear to supporters and voters alike what Nupes’s political dialectic will lead to. Being anti-capitalist is not enough. It is a detailed programme which sets out the dismantling of capitalism across the entire economic and cultural apparatus of the state, which is necessary. That Nupes is embedded in the National Assembly should be the golden opportunity to raise demands, to articulate a programme, to prevent any and every opportunistic counter-argument from gaining a foothold. Nupes’s tragedy, for the French working class, is that the very instrument within the political establishment that could harness their demands, is unable to do so. None of its four components have the tools to articulate and advance a Marxist programme.