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France’s divided left-wing candidates called for ‘popular primaries’ to be supported

A group of political activists will make a desperate last-ditch effort this month to save the bitterly divided French left from an electoral catastrophe in the presidential election with a “popular primaries” to nominate a single candidate.

The Primary Popular was founded by young people appalled by the splits that could mean no left-wing or socialist figure will reach the second round of the April elections.

So far, 300,000 people have joined the group calling on left-wing candidates to sign a “Common Ground” charter of 10 measures focused on the environment, social justice and democratic reform. This is about 40% of all members of left-wing parties in France.

More than a third have registered to participate in a popular vote to be held online between January 27 and 30. Although generally dismissed as a pointless exercise, the movement is supported. On Saturday, the influential socialist mayor of Marseille, Benoît Payan, said he would support whoever won the primaries.

The French left lists four main candidates: Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo for the Parti Socialiste (PS); Green party leader Yannick Jadot; 70-year-old far-left revolutionary Jean-Luc Mélenchon; and former Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, who announced her decision to stand up and participate in the popular primaries on Saturday.

Polls show that no one has a chance of reaching the second round in April. Calls for unity have been ignored, with analysts blaming candidates’ egos and ‘unrecognizable’ policy positions.

Mélenchon and Jadot rejected the people’s primary and said they would not participate. Hidalgo initially said she would, then rowed back, while Taubira said she would support the vote result and the program.

Mathilde Imer, spokesperson for the Primary Popular, said: “This is not a classic primaries, but a civilian nomination. We, the voters, will choose for ourselves the person we think is best placed to unite and win. It’s in the hands of the people. Voting will take place with or without the consent of the candidates.”

Samuel Grzybowski, another representative of the group, added: “The candidates could have organized this among themselves, but now it is up to us, the citizens, to choose.”

To limit the possibility of voting fraud, those who registered to vote are required to provide credit card information and pay a token €1.

Émeric Bréhier, director of the Observatoire de la vie politique of the left-wing Jean-Jaurès Foundation and teacher at the Bordeaux Institute of Political Studies, does not have much hope for the people’s primaries.

Former French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira announced on Saturday that he wanted to resign. Photo: Sebastien Salom-Golis/Rex/Shutterstock

“Even if 200,000 people sign up and vote for a candidate, it won’t appeal to the wider voter population. And the idea that even if you don’t want to be a candidate on the ballot, you’re one, seems like a strange way of doing things.”

Bréhier believes the 2022 elections will be lost to the left, and especially to the PS.

Hidalgo, who unveiled her program last week, is lagging behind well behind five other candidates with less than 4% of the voting intentions, behind Jadot and Mélenchon. Polls indicate that, if united, the total left-wing vote could rise to 25% — not enough to outweigh right-wing candidates, but enough to make them count.

“It is too late for the party to put a stamp on this election. Every candidate, on the left, swims in his own lane and nobody wants to give way even an inch,” Bréhier told the Observer. “The socialist party is in trouble and has been for years. I don’t see how we can get out of that at this stage.

“The main question now is what happens after 2022. The left needs to establish a basic ideology, something that has not existed in recent years.

“Many socialist voters today say they will vote for” [Emmanuel] Macron or Mélenchon or Taubira, but not Hidalgo. Socialist voters still exist and the passion for core principles, such as equality, has not gone away. But we have to have a strategy. There is no magic wand. It will be a long, slow and complicated reconstruction.”

An electoral disaster would also place a heavy financial burden on the PS: Hidalgo needs at least 5% of the vote in the first round to reimburse her campaign costs from taxpayers.

In 2017, PS presidential candidate Benoît Hamon hit an all-time low of just under 6.4%, wreaking havoc on the party’s finances and forcing the sale of its Paris headquarters.

Macron came to power five years ago with a centrist program designed to break France’s traditional two-party system. The right-wing opposition, Les Républicains, has since revived their election hopes with Valérie Pécresse, while the PS remains in the stable.