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A group of political activists will make one desperate last attempt this month to save the bitterly divided French left from an electoral catastrophe in the presidential election with a “people’s primary” to designate a single candidate.
The Primaire Populaire was initiated by young people dismayed by the fractures that could mean no leftwing or socialist figure will reach the second round of the election in April.
So far, 300,000 people have joined the group that is calling for leftwing candidates to sign up to a “Common Ground” charter of 10 measures centred on the environment, social justice and democratic reforms. This is around 40% of all members of leftwing parties in France.
More than a third have registered to take part in a popular vote to be held online between 27-30 January. Although widely dismissed as a futile exercise, the movement is gathering support. On Saturday, the influential socialist mayor of Marseille, Benoît Payan, said he would back whoever won the primary.
The French left is fielding four main candidates: Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo for the Parti Socialiste (PS); Green party leader Yannick Jadot; the 70-year-old hard-left revolutionary Jean-Luc Mélenchon; and the former justice minister Christiane Taubira, who announced her decision to stand on Saturday and take part in the people’s primary.
Polls show none stand a chance of reaching the second round in April. Calls for unity have been ignored, with analysts blaming candidates’ egos and “irreconcilable” policy stances.
Mélenchon and Jadot have dismissed the people’s primary and said they would not take part. Hidalgo initially said she would, then rowed back, while Taubira said she would support the vote result and programme.
Mathilde Imer, spokesperson for the Primaire Populaire, said: “This isn’t a classic primary election but a citizens’ nomination. We, the voters, will ourselves designate the person we think is the best placed to unite and win. It’s in the hands of the people. The vote will happen with or without the agreement of the candidates.”
Samuel Grzybowski, another of the group’s representatives, added: “The candidates could have organised this among themselves, but now it’s up to us, the citizens, to choose.”
To limit the possibility of voting fraud, those who have registered to vote must give credit card details and pay a symbolic €1.
Émeric Bréhier, director of the Observatoire de la vie politique of the left-leaning Jean-Jaurès Foundation and lecturer at the Bordeaux Institute of Political Studies, does not hold out much hope for the people’s primary.
“Even if 200,000 people sign up and vote for a candidate, it won’t speak to the wider voting population. And the idea that even if you don’t want to be a candidate in the vote you are one anyway seems a strange way of doing things.”
Bréhier believes the 2022 election is lost to the left, and particularly the PS.
Hidalgo, who unveiled her programme last week, is lagging well behind five other candidates at less than 4% of voting intentions, behind Jadot and Mélenchon. Polls indicate that, if united, the total leftwing vote could add up to 25% – not enough to outweigh that for rightwing candidates, but enough to make them count.
“It’s too late for the party to make a mark on this election. Each candidate, on the left, is swimming in their own lane and none wants to budge an inch,” Bréhier told the Observer. “The Socialist party is in trouble and has been for several years. I can’t see at this stage how we can get out of that.
“The most important question now is what happens after 2022. The left needs to establish a basic ideology which is something that has been nonexistent in the last few years.
“Lots of socialist voters today say they’ll vote for [Emmanuel] Macron or Mélenchon or Taubira, but not Hidalgo. Socialist voters still exist and the passion for core principles, like equality, have not disappeared. But we have to have a strategy. There is no magic wand. It will be a long, slow and complicated reconstruction.”
An electoral catastrophe would also come at a heavy financial cost for the PS: Hidalgo needs at least 5% of the vote in the first round for her campaign costs to be reimbursed by the taxpayer.
In 2017, PS presidential candidate Benoît Hamon polled a historic low of just under 6.4%, leaving the party’s finances parlous and forcing the sale of its Paris headquarters.
Macron came to power five years ago on a centrist programme designed to break France’s traditional two-party system. The opposition right, Les Républicains, have since resurrected their election hopes with Valérie Pécresse, while the PS remains in the stalls.