The story of the New Popular Ecologist and Social Union could have started in Valence, in the Drôme, in 2003. Probably near a bus shelter where two high school students were smoking their first cigarettes out of sight of their parents. One is called Pierre Jouvet, the other Manuel Bompard. They are 16 years old, meet often but do not really know each other. One is at the Émile Loubet high school, the other at the Trois Sources high school. One is a good student in the first rows, the other a dunce from the back of the class, but we won’t give the names. Baccalaureate in hand, they will forget each other until they meet again nineteen years later, in 2022, to negotiate the peace of the left. Their hair is beginning to take on the colors of the times. Jouvet became a socialist, spokesperson for the PS. Bompard is one of the feathered leaders of La France Insoumise, a loyal follower of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, for whom he has already led two presidential campaigns.
This Wednesday, April 27, at the headquarters of La France insoumise, the two high school students from Valence meet around the same table, on the floor of the headquarters of La France insoumise, in a lost alley in the 10th arrondissement of Paris. In this large room with three windows which smells strongly of tobacco as we have been smoking cigarettes after cigarettes for more than a week. Here, the ten or so Mélenchonist lieutenants negotiate with sometimes the Communists, sometimes the Ecologists, sometimes the Socialists – and sometimes all three at the same time. Anything goes: the fundamental differences on Europe and NATO, the number of constituencies allocated to each other. According to Manuel Bompard himself, the Socialists have been the most “tough”. Does he think of his old comrade from Valence? An LFI emissary adds: “It’s simple with the Socialists, they know what a negotiation is. It speaks frankly, sometimes coldly, but always in the whites of the eye.”
From time to time, Jean-Luc Mélenchon sticks his head in the crack: “How are you, comrades?” He does not want to get involved in discussions, fears that he will be blamed for it, prefers to remain “above the fray”. Anyway, he doesn’t really know this new generation of elected officials, even at the PS they never met him in the “big time”. “My strategic line is patience”, smiles the one who spends his days at the museum, at the Book Festival, with old friends. “Those who negotiate with us have absolute control. Manuel Bompard follows everything: the group, the constituencies, the program, etc.,” says Mélenchon’s entourage. But make no mistake: the union of the left is his. It is therefore, he keeps repeating, unprecedented. Or as he sometimes says: “It smells of history.”
Historic because, for the first time, the union of the left is not made around socialism, as in 1936, in 1972 or in 1997, nor around the Radicals as in 1924; but on its margins. Jean-Luc Mélenchon will have succeeded in “plucking the socialist poultry”, which the Communists have always dreamed of, but also the ecologists and the PCF. He swears the opposite, but he gets his revenge there. His revenge on this PS which made him live a hell of congress in congress and which he left in 2008 and hated since. “2022 is Mélenchon’s victory over the PS. He won his congress”, quips an ecologist, long-time observer of pink struggles.
With the socialists, the business had strangely started. The day after April 10, while he was resting in his house in Gâtinais with his cacti and bamboo, he received a few weak signals: an SMS from Olivier Faure, news from Jérôme Guedj, who was one of his first apprentices, and of Lionel Jospin too. The socialists change their tone but have they really changed? The hatred between rebels and the “soc” (pronounced “soce”) makes walking difficult, almost impossible. What do yesterday’s insults matter, what do Anne Hidalgo’s 1.7% also matter. Mélenchon needs the PS, its notability, its local roots with its hundreds of elected officials.
So when Mathilde Panot, one of her protégés, ensures in the JDD on April 17 that there would be “no discussions” of his party with the PS, “and this refusal is final”, Mélenchon cringes. Especially since he enjoyed the interview with Olivier Faure in Release, published the day before. They will have lunch together ten days later, in a bistro. Lionel Jospin reminds him, tells him that the sequence could recall the good times of the plural left of 1997. The next day, April 27, the socialist negotiators sit down at the table of the rebellious, at the latter’s. Mélenchon, who dreamed yesterday of settling his account at the PS, changes the record: “We cannot remove from the political field parties that have long histories.”
LFI sets its conditions: the socialists will have to agree to defend retirement at 60 and ask for the repeal of the El Khomri law. Olivier Faure has already said yes to Mélenchon on these points. “This law, we did not vote it because it was imposed on us by the 49-3. As for retirement at 60, it is a measure of François Mitterrand. It would be difficult to oppose it for a socialist”, recalls the first secretary of the PS. “Who could have expected Faure to do that?” Mélenchon is still surprised. His entourage abounds: “Faure, it’s a real revelation.” Especially since, to the delight of Mélenchon, the boss of the PS observes the departure of Cazeneuve without trying to hold him back, ignores François Hollande, Stéphane Le Foll and other Jean-Christophe Cambadélis who strongly oppose the deal. It is a whole generation of socialist elephants, which Mélenchon knew well, which finds itself wedged between him and Macron, with the help of Faure.
If he gave the keys to the truck to his ten lieutenants, the first of them, Manuel Bompard, reports to him on everything, almost hour by hour. Mélenchon gives his opinion, some instructions and, also, gets annoyed. Like when environmentalists drag their feet. “The main difficulty is the Greens. The discussion is continually overwhelmed by internal contradictions,” he said. One of his faithful, seated at the table of the talks, says no less: “It’s hell with EELV. We are spectators of their internal differences which they express aloud. Julien Bayou says yes to disobedience to the European treaties and Éva Sas [NDLR : proche de Jadot]Nope.”
It happens that impatience wins him again. And so the nervousness. You don’t change Mélenchon overnight. If it is not the fault of the ecologists, it is that of the communists, a little too greedy in constituencies. If it is not the fault of the Communists, it is that of their leader Fabien Roussel, who criticizes the hegemonic will of LFI, when they are about to sign an agreement. “We have trouble with the PCF because there are those who say one thing and Roussel who says another the next day. He did everything to try to circumvent us”, sighs an insubordinate emir of the party. Mélenchon is chomping at the bit: “Nobody would assume that the union fails on constituency matters. I don’t think we can stop something like that.”
“Mélenchon? He has changed. Well, I think,” murmurs an old socialist framework, favorable to the agreement. His score on April 10 (almost 22%) as much as the creation of the Nupes forced him to swap his populist costume. Like Mitterrand who insisted that anyone who did not accept the break with capitalism could not be a socialist, Mélenchon today says he pleads for “a reasoned anti-capitalism”. The Mélenchon of 2017 swore that he was going to tear up the treaties and leave the single currency, that of the presidential election of 2022 spoke of a “opt out“, the exit from certain treaties, and the one at the head of Nupes now wants to “disobey certain European rules in respect of the rule of law”, according to the agreement where the Socialists even had the right to write the contrary, black on white in the text.
Pragmatic Mélenchon? Mélenchon strategist? Mélenchon on a wire. He believes in his march to Matignon, even if it is very – too much? – high and steep. “I am an optimist of the will to action”, boasts the one who is already thinking, in the greatest of secrets, about his government. If he fails to become Prime Minister, then he will have sent at least a hundred deputies, if not more. “Not so bad” for a left that was said to be irreconcilable, even almost dead.
But what is Nupes? A trial run? The start of something? Mélenchon knows his story: “Everyone says that the victory of the Old in 1981 was a surprise but it is a long construction, an adventure started at the Epinay congress in 1971.” He said he did not want to redo either the Popular Front of 1936 or Mitterrand’s Common Program. “We are not going to live in the obsession of the mirror,” he asserts. He wants his own adventure. “Days that pass are never, never the same,” Stone and Charden sang. It was Adventure. It was 1971. Mélenchon is whistling.