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Can anything save the French left?

The “Popular Primary” aims to pick a single left-wing candidate for president – whether they want it or not.

By Ido Vock

BERLIN – A last-ditch “Popular Primary” – a contest with the peculiarity of not requiring those contesting it to sign up – aims to pick a single unity candidate for the French left to prevent a historic wipeout in this year’s presidential elections. 

At least 250,000 voters have registered to take part, organisers say, but the process faces long odds of success. For one thing, the most heavyweight of the seven candidates on the ballot – the Socialist mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, the far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the Green candidate Yannick Jadot – have not signed up themselves but have been added to it against their will. They say they will not respect its result and will contest the national vote in April regardless of the outcome.

One person standing out of choice is Christiane Taubira, a former justice minister. Taubira has said she will run for the presidential election if she wins the primary, for which she is the favourite. 

Born in French Guiana, Taubira, who won 2.3 per cent of the vote in the 2002 presidential election, has long been an icon of the left. She was the face of one of its biggest victories in recent years: the 2013 legalisation of gay marriage. As minister, she faced down massive street protests against the law, securing an unquestionably progressive legacy for former president François Hollande’s term in office. She also pushed forward a law officially recognising slavery as a crime against humanity in 2001. 

“I was born a woman, black, poor, what a start in life!” she has written. Her background marks her out from other French politicians, who tend to be disproportionately white middle-class men. She is additionally a prolific novelist and author, whose works are generally viewed as more profound than the “political books” that  are a staple of French politics. 

Some on the left hope that the winner of the Popular Primary will receive a winner’s boost, just as the Republican candidate, Valérie Pécresse, saw her poll ratings almost double after victory in a similar primary on the centre-right. Yet that hope may be misplaced. The Republican party is a well-recognised brand nationally, whose primary was treated as a serious exercise by the national media. Pécresse’s rivals were significant figures, such as the president of the Hauts-de-France region, Xavier Bertrand, and the EU’s former chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier.

That all but one of the main candidates in the Popular Primary have refused to sign up for the exercise, and say they will not recognise its result, inherently diminishes how seriously it will be taken. 

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Moreover, far from unifying the left, the victory of any candidate who has signed up for the primary will further split it, adding another name to the roster of at least seven left-wing leaders already contesting it. Because the left is so divided, on current polls no progressive candidate would make it to the second round of voting in the election. Another candidate emerging from the primary would further aggravate the situation. 

A Taubira victory might allow a convenient escape route for Hidalgo, who consistently polls below 5 per cent. She has insisted that she will contest April’s vote. Yet many despairing Socialists are known to believe that her campaign has no path to victory and that she should withdraw in favour of a rival with a better chance. Like Hidalgo, Taubira was long associated with the Socialists, although she is not a member of any party. Hidalgo might decide to align herself behind the upstart. 

Taubira is viewed by some observers as bringing a certain dynamism to her candidacy – a contrast to the mayor of Paris, whose campaign has been criticised as unexciting and having failed to cut through with the public. The widely respected former justice minister has largely stayed out of front-line politics since resigning from the government in 2016, so she has faced less recent controversy than Hidalgo, who is widely criticised (fairly or unfairly) for the policies she has pursued in Paris. New cycle lanes are blamed for worsening traffic, while many citizens claim to have noticed the city becoming markedly less clean since she came to office. 

Still, officially, Hidalgo, Mélenchon and Jadot, who together poll about 17 per cent of the vote, have not said they will respect the result of the Popular Primary. The exercise will not have helped reassure progressives who fear the left is heading for a historic defeat in three months.

[See also: Could Valérie Pécresse be France’s first female president?]

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