In better times, the French left used to draw inspiration from the old Popular Front phrase, “les lendemains qui chantent” (the tomorrows that sing). These days that kind of optimism – along with any sense of unity among progressives – is just a poignant memory.
With less than 100 days to go before the first round of the French presidential election, the jockeying for position among the flatlining candidates of the left has become a fractious sideshow, as the campaign continues to be dominated by the right. At the weekend, the Socialist former justice minister, Christiane Taubira, became the latest hopeful to formally throw her hat into the ring. She joins the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo – also a Socialist – France Unbowed’s veteran hard-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the Green candidate, Yannick Jadot, and an assortment of fringe figures. None of the candidates has managed to break through the 10% barrier in polls and none has a chance of making it through to the second round of voting; yet all remain in the race, vying to take votes from each other. “Singing tomorrows” have given way to a cacophonous clashing of stubborn egos. The result is that the 30% or so of voters who identify as being on the broad left are being effectively disfranchised.
Ms Taubira is associated with one of the most notable progressive victories in recent times, having pushed through same-sex marriage in 2013. Charismatic and popular with grassroots activists, she will hope that her radical pedigree can transcend the factional warfare. But there is also a risk that she simply divides this divided field still further. Ms Hidalgo recently warned that the choice for the left was to either unite or risk eventual extinction as a political force in France. But Mr Jadot and Mr Mélenchon, whose poll ratings have more than halved since the election of 2017, have both refused to recognise the validity of an unofficial “people’s primary” at the end of the month.
It is a sorry spectacle. In 2012, following the election of François Hollande as president, the Parti Socialiste controlled the Élysée, both houses of parliament and most regional administrations. It then paid a heavy price for enacting post-crash austerity measures and haemorrhaged working-class support during the growing backlash against globalisation. In 2017, the party was out-manoeuvred by Emmanuel Macron, who left it to set up the centrist En Marche movement and successfully brought about a realignment in which he became the presidential bulwark against the threat of the far right.
Faced with these formidable structural challenges, the French left cannot afford the luxury of endless infighting and self-indulgent campaigns leading to mutually assured destruction at the polls. The people’s primary was set up by progressive activists in a last-ditch attempt to achieve a united front. It seems destined to fail in that aim – though it may serve as a kind of launchpad for Ms Taubira, who has said she will not run unless she wins. The near-certain humiliation that awaits the left in April should be the catalyst for a radical reboot of how progressive politics is done in France.