There are talks about the crisis in the public hospital and about abstention, as well as oratory or door-to-door workshops. The militants, on the shore of a lake, in the sun or under the trees, learn to go in contact with the citizen, to talk to him, to listen to him. And to ask for the vote.
“We must go talk to the people, and we must do it now that there is no electoral campaign, because we can take more time to be interested in their problems. In the campaign there is not so much time, because at that moment the important thing is to see as many people as possible and tell them to go vote”.
The speaker is called Julien, he is 27 years old, he is a computer engineer and he has driven 320 kilometers from his city, Besançon, to Valence, south of Lyon. On the outskirts of Valence, the Summer University of La France Insumisa (LFI), the party of the French anti-capitalist and eurosceptic left, was held between Friday and Sunday.
Everything revolves around the rentrée these days in France, the beginning of the course. The original rentrée: the school. The literary, with half a thousand novels that land in bookstores. And the political rentrée, which has its rituals. Among them, the summer universities: meetings between leaders and militants, generally far from Paris and often in a rural and relaxed setting, to get ready before returning to the partisan fight.
“We needed to regain strength among militants and friends after the electoral campaigns,” says Céline, a 48-year-old militant who has come with other rebels from the Tarn department, near Toulouse, while queuing to buy Mexican food. “We needed to look for energy,” adds Philippe, 58.
There were summer universities that marked an era, such as those convened by the Socialist Party (PS) in La Rochelle, on the Atlantic coast, since the 1990s. It used to be the scene of fights between internal currents and power intrigues. Emmanuel Macron turned French politics upside down in 2017 when, without a major party behind him, he won the presidential election while the PS and its eternal rival on the right, the Republicans, collapsed. And indirectly he turned the ritual of the universités d’été upside down.
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But in this year 2022, French politics has taken another turn. Macron was re-elected in April, but in June he lost his absolute majority in the National Assembly. France, which went to bed on election night as a presidential regime, in which the head of state said everything, woke up parliamentary, with a strong and diverse opposition. And with summer universities with considerable convening power.
There were thousands this weekend in Valence, in the busiest of these summer universities: that of La France Insumisa led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, three times a candidate and three times defeated in the presidential elections, but the architect, after the last ones, of the first single candidacy of the left in decades: rebels, socialists, environmentalists and communists under the same label of the New Social Ecological Popular Union (NUPES). NUPES, adding its parties, has 151 deputies, which makes it the leading opposition force. As they do not have a single group and their parties sit separately in the hemicycle, the first opposition is actually the National Regrouping (RN), Le Pen’s far-right party, with 89 deputies. La France Insumisa has 75. Mélenchon does not figure among them, since he was not a candidate in the legislative elections. In Valence, where he delivered the closing speech on Sunday, he was the star, but the unknown about his future hovered over the discussions. Free leader? guardian figure? A good part of the left –the non-rebellious one– distrusts him and reproaches him for his complacency with some authoritarian regimes.
Mélenchon, this Sunday at the Summer University of La Francia Insumisa. JEFF PACHOUD (AFP)
But the mélenchonistas, without being the first parliamentary force, are stronger than ever, and this weekend they have revved up their engines to assert themselves in the new legislature.
“Access to power is urgent and the sooner the better”, proclaims, on a podium before hundreds of faithful, the deputy Adrien Quatennens, Mélenchon’s young lieutenant.
LFI is running in the National Assembly as the real opposition: the loudest, the most aggressive. But good vibes reign in Valence, to the point that the rebellious ones – who consider Macron an authoritarian leader and a dangerous ultraliberal, and who are branded by some macronists as “Islamo-leftists” – have invited several ministers to debate.
Marlène Schiappa, Secretary of State for the Social Economy, discusses the Republic concept with Deputy Alexis Corbière, one of the strong men of the LFI. They talk about dates. She claims the Revolution of 1789, the taking of the Bastille and the Declaration of the rights of man and citizen; he, from 1793, after Louis XVI’s head had been lopped off, “not the formal Republic, but the real one,” she says. They applaud him; they boo her. “I am not afraid of debate, even though you are a thousand and I am one,” Schiappa tells them. Corbière adds: “If indeed one day the historical adversaries of the Republic put it in danger, I am sure that we will fight on the same side.” Everyone stands up and sings La Marseillaise.
It is not a theoretical issue, that of the Republic. In some sectors of macronismo, the idea circulates that LFI does not belong to the republican camp and that, like Le Pen’s RN, it should be placed outside the walls of the system. Clément Beaune, former Minister of Europe, current Minister of Transport and Macron’s confidant, is clear: they are Republicans; Otherwise, he wouldn’t be here to debate the meaning of the word ‘disobedience’ with unsubmissive MEP Manon Aubry for over an hour. The rebels advocate “disobeying” a European Union that they consider undemocratic; Beaune believes that if it were not democratic, what should be done is not to disobey, but to leave.
“How many of you are in favor of disobeying the EU?” the moderator asks the audience. Nearly a thousand hands go up. “And to leave the EU?” Barely twenty.
“I’m sick of being asked if I’m for or against the EU: we’re for another EU,” says Aubry. Beaune maintains: “Making politics is not disobeying the rule, it is changing the rule.”
Strolling among the booths of publications and left-wing organizations, some 20-somethings discuss “dialectical socialism”; others, while sunbathing on the grass by the lake, weigh the chances that Le Pen will win the 2027 presidential elections. Under a tent, politicians and academics seek the reason for the workers’ vote for the extreme right; in another forum the topic of discussion is whether the RN is “neo-fascism or French-style Trumpism.”
The question of etiquette applies to France Insoumise itself. How to call them? Populists, as Mélenchon has claimed in the past? Far left, a term they reject? “We are the true left”, believes Céline, the Tarn militant. “I would say radical left,” says Julien, from Besançon. “We are from the left, but we have a radical project, to break with the system.”
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