‘Popular primary’ does nothing to mitigate shambles on French left

Poll intended to whittle down number of left and Green candidates in presidential race

Christiane Taubira, the former Socialist justice minister who won a so-called popular primary of the French left and environmentalists on Sunday night, has said the poll would be "the last chance for a possible union of the left".

The “primary” was intended to whittle the number of left and Green candidates in the French presidential race from seven down to one. But feuding contestants refused to accept the results and the exercise in futility increased chaos and confusion, 2½ months before the election.

Sandrine Rousseau, who lost the Greens' primary last September, told Le Monde: "Every day, or almost, some new variable complicates the equation on the left. The sudden appearance of Christiane Taubira, the ambiguity created by [former Socialist president] François Hollande [about his possible candidacy] . . . Collectively, we look ridiculous."

The online "primary" was organised by the environmentalist activist Mathilde Imer (31) and Samuel Grzbowski (29), a leftist Catholic, because they were, Imer said, "fed up with losing elections" and watching the progression of voter abstention.

While only 23 per cent of respondents showed any interest in the “popular primary” in an Ifop poll published on January 20th, 392,738 people nonetheless voted in the three-day election. Taubira was the only one of the top five candidates who promised to accept the results and pull out of the race if she lost.

The others claimed the primary was a scheme to promote Taubira, who did not declare herself a presidential candidate until January 15th. Her victory on Sunday night changed nothing, they said, refusing to rally behind her. Taubira denounced the others’ “lack of respect” for the process.

The economic daily Les Échos prints a daily barometer of voter intentions, compiled by the Opinion Way polling company. Monday's poll still showed the left and Greens at the bottom of the pile in projected first-round results. President Emmanuel Macron is steady at 24 per cent while his three conservative and far-right challengers are at 17 and 13 per cent.

Despite Taubira's victory in the poll, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, an accomplished orator and showman from the far left, is leading the losers' pack at 10 per cent. Taubira and the Green MEP Yannick Jadot are tied at 5 per cent, while the official Socialist candidate and mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo, and the Communist candidate Fabien Roussel, are at 3 per cent – too low to recoup their election expenses.

Hidalgo and Jadot won Socialist and Green primaries last year. Hidalgo is at war with Olivier Faure, the secretary-general of her own party. Faure reportedly hopes that Hidalgo's poor performance in the poll – she ranked fifth – will force her to drop out of the race.

In December, Hidalgo briefly defended the idea of the “popular primary” before concluding that it was a vehicle for Taubira. Hidalgo said she would participate, but only if Jadot also accepted the results, which he categorically refused to do. Mélenchon denounced the “primary” as “obscure tricks to pull a rabbit out of a hat”.

The Covid pandemic has fostered a greater desire for a protective state, public services, and social justice. Rising inflation has made purchasing power a leading concern of French voters, along with global warming. These themes ought to favour the left and Greens, at a time when the right is obsessed with immigration, security and identity politics. But there is a disconnect between voter concerns and left and Green politicians, who lack charisma.

The French Socialist Party was founded at the Congrès d'Épinay 50 years ago last June and its glory days were during François Mitterrand's 1981-1995 presidency, with a brief revival under Lionel Jospin's "plural left" government from 1997 until 2002. The Socialist leader François Hollande was elected in 2012 because the electorate rejected Nicolas Sarkozy. His term was a huge disappointment.

"This movement was one of the great components of European life for generations of workers, intellectuals and citizens", the philosopher Pierre Manent told Europe 1 radio station, lamenting the "pathetic perplexity" which has seized French socialism.

The Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon won only 6.36 per cent of the vote in the last presidential election. The party’s membership has shrunk from 111,450 in 2016 to 22,000 at present.

It appears that political parties, like individuals and states, are incapable of learning from their past. As the left heads for disaster in April, many are again blaming Taubira for sowing division. Had she not insisted on standing for a splinter party in 2002, the Socialist prime minister Jospin would have made it to the runoff and might have defeated Jacques Chirac.

The shambles on the French left is all the more striking because Social Democrat parties are in power in Denmark, Germany – where Greens also play a prominent role – and Sweden, and Socialists lead the governments of Portugal and Spain.

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