PARIS — The dismal state of the French left ahead of April’s 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 the surveys.
Mr Montebourg posted several videos on Twitter of him phoning four other leftist candidates, all of whom vote equally poorly. 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.
No one picked up.
As the election nears, the left – once a potent force in French politics – is now largely in tatters, and many of its most familiar faces seem incapable of the one thing that pundits and supporters say offers the only possible path to victory: unity. .
In a country swerving to the right, the left has been left speechless on issues like security, immigration and national identity, and it has failed to capitalize on the wave of environmental protests and social justice which should have provided an 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 to commit suicide.”
But amid the ineffective chaos, there is now a push for order.
Bypassing traditional party tactics, thePeople’s Primary,” a nascent effort led by a left-wing group worn out by factionalism and party fragmentation, will stage a vote in January for supporters to pick a single candidate before the French electorate weighs in as a whole.
Together, the candidates represent what would represent around a quarter of the votes, around 20 points less than the French left ten years ago. The likelihood that a unified candidate from the left will win enough votes to reach the next round of the two-part race – most likely to face incumbent Emmanuel Macron – seems low.
But the effort to hold a primary in January offers hope for a path to a revived sense of relevance for the left. And it could potentially further disrupt a presidential campaign that has already been upended by the entry of polarizing far-right writer and TV celebrity Eric Zemmour into the race.
“We are talking about the left again – there is a new pressure,” said Mr. Lefebvre, professor of political science. But he added that it was unclear 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 politics, but Mr Macron’s victory in the 2017 presidential elections ended the two-party system in which he had secured a comfortable place for himself.
The left is now an unruly mix, mostly divided between the Socialists, the Greens and far-left France insoumise – not to mention the constellation of small far-left parties that emerged from the near collapse of the Communist Party.
Primary leaders got to work in January, negotiating for months with most of these parties to develop a common core of 10 proposals for social and climate justice, including higher taxes for the wealthy and an end to pesticide use by 2030.
More than 300,000 people joined the initiative, the equivalent of 40% of all members of left-wing parties in France. They will vote in January to nominate a candidate and have pledged to campaign on that person’s behalf.
But it will be a long road.
Until recently, left-wing parties had “despised” the People’s Primary, seeing it as a competing force that could threaten their interests, Lefebvre said.
Samuel Grzybowski, a spokesman for the effort, said his team had been 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 presidential race.
“It’s been Baron Noir for a long time,” he said, referring to a hit TV series that depicts the darker side of French political life – a French version of “House of Cards.”
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of France Unbowed, described the calls for unity as too late and “pathetic”. But gradually the tide began to turn.
Mr Montebourg’s desperate pleas drew attention, and then Anne Hidalgo, the Paris mayor and Socialist Party candidate, whose support has fallen to less than 5%, acknowledged that the left was heading for disaster.
“This fractured left, this left which today despairs many of our fellow citizens, must regroup”, she declared on The most watched news program in France at the beginning of this month. “We need to have a primary,” she added, later expressing support for the primary effort.
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The movement gained new momentum when Christiane Taubira, a charismatic former minister of justice under François Hollande, French socialist president from 2012 to 2017, announcement that she “considered” running for president and that she would put all her “strength into the last chance of unity”. The next day, she said the main effort “seems to be the last space where this unit can be built.”
Ms. Taubira’s decision risks adding pressure on candidates who have so far been reluctant to join the left-wing primaries, such as Yannick Jadot of the Greens. Minutes after Ms. Taubira’s announcement, Sandrine Rousseau, a Greens leader who is also campaigning for Mr. Jadot, says a “coalition of the left” was needed.
“The balance of power just tipped in our favour,” Grzybowski said.
The call for a citizens’ primary reflected growing disenchantment with mainstream left-wing parties. Many on the left now view 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 engineer and volunteer for the Primary.
“It’s the social movements, the marches for the climate, #MeToo, the yellow vests,” he added, referring to the many protests that have upset France recently, on issues like economic inequality, racism. and domestic violence.
But left-wing parties have struggled to translate those protests into concrete proposals and broader support. They are disconnected from these social movements, struggled to gain traction outside the big cities, and slid into bitter infighting as competing strains of feminism and anti-racism from different generations clashed.
“This left is losing touch with the base,” said Michel Wieviorka, a French sociologist. “It loses the ability to embody new social and cultural protests and, at the same time, the old unionized workers’ protests are also slipping through its fingers.
Where all this will lead is unclear, but a survey conducted this month showed that nearly three-quarters of the left-leaning electorate now support the principle of a primary, and an average of about 8,000 people have joined the primary effort every day for the past two weeks, Mr. Grzybowski.
Alain Coulombel, member of the leadership of the Greens in favor of the primary, deplored that the left is heading towards the elections without equipping itself with “all the weapons to win”. He estimated that the parties’ agendas converged on nearly 80% of the proposals.
All the French left has to do, he said, is “to put the puzzle together”.