PARIS – The dismal state of the French left ahead of the April presidential elections was best summed up in a series of recent phone calls made by Arnaud Montebourg, a former minister in the socialist government whose presidential campaign barely registered in polls.
Mr. Montebourg posted several videos on Twitter to make phone calls to four other left-wing candidates, all equally bad in the polls. It was a clumsy last-ditch attempt to urge Socialists, Greens, Communists and other leftists to unite behind a single presidential ticket or be crushed by the right and far right in April.
Nobody picked up.
As the elections approach, the left – once a powerful force in French politics – is now largely in tatters, and many of its more familiar faces seem incapable of the one thing that experts and supporters say offers the only possible path to victory: unity.
In a country that veers to the right, the left has been left speechless on issues like security, immigration and national identity, and has failed to capitalize on the wave of environmental protests and social justice that should have been the opportunity to gain support.
“The left is in a situation of unprecedented ideological fragility,” said Rémi Lefebvre, professor of political science at the University of Lille. “In this context, to be divided means suicide. “
But amid the ineffective chaos, there is now a push for order.
Bypassing traditional party tactics, the “People’s Primary,” a nascent effort led by a left-wing group exhausted by factionalism and party fragmentation, will hold a vote in January to have supporters choose a single candidate before the electorate. French. weighs as a whole.
Together, the candidates represent what would represent around a quarter of the votes, or around 20 points less than the French left ten years ago. The chance of a unified candidate from the left garnering enough votes to reach the next round of the two-part race – to most likely take on incumbent President Emmanuel Macron – seems slim.
But the effort to hold a primary in January offers hope of a path to a rekindled sense of relevance for the left. And it could potentially further disrupt a presidential campaign that has already been turned upside down by the entry into the race of Eric Zemmour, a polarizing far-right writer and television celebrity.
“We are talking about the left again, there are new pressures,” declared Mr. Lefebvre, professor of political science. But he added that it was not clear whether the momentum behind the primary would be enough to overcome deep-rooted party divisions.
The French left has long been dominated by the Socialist Party and its Social Democratic policies, but Mr. Macron’s victory in the 2017 presidential elections ended the two-party system in which he had secured a comfortable place.
The left is now an unruly mix, mostly divided between Socialists, Greens and far left France Unbowed – not to mention the constellation of small far left parties that emerged from the near collapse of the Communist Party.
Primary campaign leaders got to work in January, negotiating for months with most of these parties to craft a common base of 10 social and climate justice proposals, including higher taxes for the rich and ending of pesticide use in 2030.
More than 300,000 people have joined the initiative, the equivalent of 40 percent of all left-wing party members in France. They will vote in January to nominate a candidate and have pledged to campaign on behalf of that person.
But it will be a long road.
Until recently, left-wing parties had “despised” the People’s Primary, viewing it as a competing force that could threaten their interests, Lefebvre said.
Samuel Grzybowski, spokesperson for the effort, said his team had come under pressure from established parties to end the primary process, with some parties even offering to help them win seats in parliament if they pulled out of the process. presidential race.
“It has long been Baron Noir,” he said, referring to a successful TV series that portrays the dark side of French political life – a French version of “House of Cards”.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of France Unbowed, called the calls for unity too late and “pathetic”. But little by little, the tide started to turn.
Mr Montebourg’s desperate appeals drew attention, then Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris and Socialist Party candidate, whose support fell to less than 5%, admitted that the left was heading for disaster.
“This fractured left, this left which today despairs many of our fellow citizens, must come together,” she told France’s most watched news program earlier this month. “We have to hold a primary,” she added, later expressing support for the primary effort.
This was followed by a public letter urging the parties to agree on a primary, following similar calls from members of various parties.
The movement took on new impetus when Christiane Taubira, a former charismatic justice minister under François Hollande, French socialist president from 2012 to 2017, announcement that she “planned” to run for the presidency and that she would put all her “strength into the last chances of unity”. The next day, she said the main effort “appears to be the last space where this unit can be built.”
Ms Taubira’s decision is likely to add pressure on candidates who have so far been reluctant to join the left-wing primaries, like Yannick Jadot of the Greens. A few minutes after Ms. Taubira’s announcement, Sandrine Rousseau, leader of the Greens who is also campaigning for Mr. Jadot, declared that a “coalition of the left” was necessary.
“The balance of power has just tilted in our favor,” said Mr. Grzybowski.
The call for a citizen primary reflected growing disenchantment with traditional left-wing parties. Many on the left now see party policies on social justice and a fair economy as outdated. Some still view Mr. Hollande’s pro-business policy as a betrayal.
“It is no longer the political parties that lead the public debate,” said Hugo Viel, a 23-year-old graduate engineer and Primary volunteer.
“These are the social movements, the marches for the climate, #MeToo, the yellow vests”, he added, referring to the many demonstrations that have recently upset France, on issues such as economic inequalities, racism and domestic violence.
But left-wing parties have struggled to translate these protests into concrete proposals and broader support. They are disconnected from these social movements, have struggled to gain ground outside the big cities and have slipped into bitter internal struggles, as competing tensions of feminism and anti-racism from different generations clash.
“This left loses contact with the base,” said Michel Wieviorka, a French sociologist. “He loses the ability to embody new social and cultural protests and, at the same time, old union and workers’ protests also elude him.”
It’s unclear where all this will lead, but a poll this month showed that nearly three-quarters of the left-wing electorate now support the principle of a primary, and an average of around 8,000 people have joined. primary effort each day for the past two weeks, Mr. Grzybowski said.
Alain Coulombel, member of the leadership of the Greens which supports the primary, lamented that the left was heading towards the elections without acquiring “all the weapons to win”. He estimated that party agendas converged on nearly 80 percent of the proposals.
All the French left has to do, he said, is “piece together the puzzle”.