Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of France Insoumise and the New Popular Ecological and Social Union, climbs onto a plastic chair set up in the center of a square in the middle of Rome’s Tuscolano neighborhood. He addresses a crowd that has come to hear the voice of a man who has restored the left’s place at the center of public debate across the Alps. The first word he says is in Italian: “Resistenza!” (“Resistance!”). He repeats it three times.
A quick look at the geosocial layout of this neighborhood is enough to call to memory once again the voices of the recent past, to grasp the gap between what was then and what is now, as the right-wingers are running for a two-thirds majority in parliament and the leftist People’s Union coalition – which Mélenchon came here to support – is struggling to break through the 3% threshold.
The Quadraro and the Nazi roundups took place just a few hundred meters from here. The headquarters of Calpurnio Fiamma, the first experiment to create a social center in the late 1970s, are just around the corner. A stone’s throw away is Piazza Don Bosco, which Pasolini cast as the boundary between metropolis and countryside, between development and underdevelopment in his film Mamma Roma, and where fascists killed Roberto Scialabba in 1978. A little further on, the great housing occupation of Via Masurio Sabino, behind which stands the military airport of Centocelle, and the Corto Circuito, driving force of the social centers at the end of the last millennium. All around we see the high-rises of the Ina Casa plan, promoted by Fanfani to meet the needs of the housing crisis.
Mélenchon doesn’t mince words and isn’t willing to sidestep the fundamental political issue. He does so with rhetorical skill and an ability to polarize the discourse in the right direction: “People ask me, ‘Why are you going there, supporting a small party that no one knows how many votes it will get?’ This is what I answer: I’m not going to sit quietly in my bed while you in Italy are up against the fascists.” His impassioned speech warms the hearts of the five hundred or so who have come to listen to him.
He points to a way forward for those who have come to listen to him: it is not a matter of winning the debate against the different shades of the other leftist forces, endlessly replaying the ruptures and divisions that are likely to be both uninteresting and demoralizing to an outsider hearing about them. Instead, Mélenchon says we need to present ourselves as the real bulwark against the extreme right – this is the lesson that comes from his success in France: “Only we can have the courage to say to those who vote for the extreme right: ‘Use your brains, it’s not by getting rid of the Arabs that you will be better off.’“
“I would have liked to come to see you as president of the Republic of France,” he says, ruefully. “But we lost, although only by a little. Maybe I will come next time as prime minister, because we won the first round of the legislative elections in France.” For Mélenchon, “the Italian labor and communist movement has always been the most creative, the most inventive, the most joyful,” although nowadays, he acknowledges, “it is another historical era.”
“They tell us that we have to make compromises and that nobody is actually the enemy,” argues Marta Collot, spokeswoman for Potere al Popolo, “But in France, a political entity was built with clear and cutting words which is the main alternative.”
Luigi De Magistris, the face of People’s Union, rails against M5S leader Giuseppe Conte, who according to the polls is winning support to the left of the PD: “When he was in government with Salvini, he ordered to close the ports and let people die at sea. We will build a great project against all forms of the right, not only that represented by Salvini, Meloni and Berlusconi,” says the former mayor of Naples.
For Mélenchon, being in Italy also means paying homage to the land of humanism. “This is the first time in human history that a system is feeding off the disasters it causes: did you see this summer with the fires? They didn’t even have the tools to fight them. I am not anti-capitalist only for moral and ideological reasons, I am anti-capitalist because I think this economic system endangers the general interest of humanity. And those who feel they are heirs of humanism must defend Italy. You have to feel one with the humblest of creatures, that’s why I don’t recognize myself in this world. And I turn to young people, I tell them not to sacrifice anything, starting with their love for humanity.”
“This enthusiasm and these simple, combative words, that’s what we must take with us,” Guido Lutrario of USB told his supporters. According to Maurizio Acerbo, secretary of Rifondazione Comunista, “we have to make up for too many years to organize the strength and unity of the working classes. But we are the ones who won the referendum on water and who are against the war, even if they’re now telling us that the left is Conte.”
The curious thing, which gives an idea of how messy the summer election campaign is, is that until less than 48 hours before his visit, there was a rumor that Mélenchon was close to endorsing the Five Stars. In the end, the French leader’s support is the fruit of a relationship that comes from his past visits to the former OPG in Naples and the city run by De Magistris: “Italy is lucky to have People’s Union, otherwise there would be no one left to resist here. I can’t say that your program is the best, because it is the same as mine.”