It used to be THE meeting not to be missed… But who is still interested in the congresses of political parties?

It’s the season. After Renaissance (in September), the National Rally (in November), Europe-Ecologie – Les Verts, Les Républicains and even the NPA of Philippe Poutou or the UDI are holding their congresses this weekend. The Socialist Party will come in January and the French Communist Party in April. It is not just a coincidence: after the presidential and legislative elections, the political parties – victorious or defeated – make their post-mortem and try to relaunch themselves for the legislature which is beginning. But these key appointments for the parties do not excite the crowds, and the media with them. How to interest in the internal procedures of political parties which are – overall – very unpopular in public opinion, if we are to believe the polls?

That said, contrary to what the media trend of recent years may have given as an impression of organizing debates – sometimes several – to elect party leaders, congresses are not necessarily, at their base, pure media events. “For a long time, they were closed places, recalls political scientist Rémi Lefebvre. Congress is a place of division and agreement. Sometimes it can even become a stress relief. If the media are there and things go wrong, internal divisions are put on display. “ Conversely, ecologists have made “the choice (or the error) to open their congresses to journalists in a process of transparency, notes Vanessa Jérôme, political scientist, associate professor at the University of Victoria in Canada. It was a custom, but it changed a bit with the Cécile Duflot era. »

“The only democratic way”

These divisions arise from the basic function of a congress: to renew the governing bodies of the party and to change, influence or update doctrine and strategy. “And it’s the only democratic way to achieve it, we haven’t found anything else”, judges the socialist deputy Arthur Delaporte, also author of a thesis on the socialist congresses… on a break since his election in June. A small stone in the rebellious garden, a “gaseous” movement without congress and where the management, unveiled – decidedly – ​​too these days is a bit out of the hat.

At EELV, of course, management is at stake. But the countless internal referendums are often overlooked. The question of substance is nevertheless less important than that of strategy, analyzes Vanessa Jérôme: “These people are convinced that they have the truth about the future of the world, and the present does not prove them wrong. So they don’t really ask themselves if they are right to think what they think. They wonder how to organize themselves to convince and win the elections. »

Primary > congress

Useful precision: the congresses are very different from one party to another. Some have long and sometimes complex procedures, yesterday at the PS, and still today at EELV. In summary: a great intellectual ferment. Others are lighter, like at LR, where this weekend, we vote only for the president of the party. Some have fixed dates, others not really. But in one case as in the other, the importance of the event so much to decrease, because the place of the legitimation of the political leaders moved. “For a very long time at the PS, taking the lead of the party was the certainty of being the presidential candidate, recalls Rémi Lefebvre. This is no longer the case at all. »

Clearly, the presidential primaries, internal or open, have somehow emptied the congresses of their substance, at least those of the “major parties”. In the PS, activists only voted for their presidential candidate for the first time in 1995. The story is different on the right, but the result is similar: when Nicolas Sarkozy was elected president of the UMP (LR today), he is the natural presidential candidate. This year, the aspirants to the presidency of LR are careful to say that they will not start the race for the Elysée. “The parties are so hated that it is not good to base your presidential strategy on a congress,” adds Rémi Lefebvre.

Adaptation to media time

Arthur Delaporte, who shares this analysis, also sees in it “a form of de-ideologization of parties”. At the PS, this debate has long been materialized by the famous currents, the same from one congress to another. “These were real political enterprises, with publications, meetings and even permanent staff! This is no longer the case, because we can no longer finance all that anyhow as before, and because loyalties are more personal than ideological, and therefore the trajectories more fluid. »

As a result, congresses are dematerialized (like at LR) or transformed into big meetings. Everything is decided upstream, and in the “big” parties, it is only a nomination. “We proclaim results, there are great speeches, but everything is played”, describes Rémi Lefebvre. “It’s about having beautiful images,” adds Arthur Delaporte. And this is where the media return: the parties have adapted to their temporality. “We remember the Epinay congress in 1971, it is said that François Mitterrand took power there in the PS. But at the end of the congress, everything was not yet settled, ”recalls the deputy from Calvados.

Have a drink

But then, why organize congresses in 2022? Well, it’s still the moment when a whole party, its activists, get going. Especially in an organization like the Socialist Party, where lots of positions are put into play, from the base section to the national, through the federation (the department). More prosaically, it is often the moment when members rejoin… and that makes money for the party. Finally, last reason, and not least: because it’s still nice!

“The congress is a place of sociability, socialization, conviviality. A mix takes place between the delegates who come from the field”, notes Rémi Lefebvre. Arthur Delaporte supports: “We see friends from all over France and in the evening, we drink the shots! Connections are made, it also gives meaning. Ditto with environmentalists, where the “first round” of the congress is a single regional general assembly of members, face-to-face obligatorily if one wants to participate. Vanessa Jérôme tempers: at EELV, precisely, “45 to 50% of activists do not interfere with the congress”. Even the promise of drinking shots with comrades is no longer enough to fill the halls.

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