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Christiane Taubira wins the French left’s citizen vote: what now?

Leading law professor says the Primaire populaire online opinion poll initiative is an interesting new model for politics

Christiane Taubira (top left), Anne Hidalgo (top right), Yannick Jadot (bottom right) and Jean-Luc Mélenchon (bottom left) Pic: Denis Makarenko / Frederic Legrand - COMEO / GERARD BOTTINO / martinbertrand.fr / Shutterstock

[Article updated February 2 at 08:38]

A leading French law professor says Christiane Taubira's victory in last night's Primaire populaire people’s primary vote is unlikely to boost the left's presidential election chances but may prove a new model for parties to follow in future.

The Primaire populaire was created by independent activists in the hope of nominating a single common left-wing candidate for the 2022 presidential elections in April, providing an alternative to the current binary between President Emmanuel Macron and the far-right candidates Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour.

It was taken up by 390,000 members of the public who pre-registered online to rank seven left-wing candidates on their proposals in an effort to single out a candidate who might embody the left's ideals. 

The poll did not ask voters to select a preferred candidate but rather to rank them all against the following descriptions: ‘very good’, ‘good’, ‘fairly good’, ‘acceptable’ and ‘insufficient’. 

The idea was to determine the candidate with the best average grade and who would therefore probably be the most acceptable to the wider electorate.

Ms Taubira ranked first, ahead of ecologist Yannick Jadot (who came second), far-left La France Insoumise’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon (third) and Parti socialiste’s Anne Hidalgo (fifth), who have all declared their candidacy for April’s presidential election.

Ms Taubira, who served as Minister of Justice from 2012 to 2016 under the Parti socialiste president François Hollande, called for the other candidates to now unite behind her in the hope of becoming a runner-up in April’s election.

However Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Yannick Jadot, Anne Hidalgo and Fabien Roussel (Parti communiste) all declined, saying they will continue to stand alone, leaving the left with [yet] another candidate - and any hope of unity shattered.

“I am afraid the result will not change anything,” said Thomas Clay, a law professor and the regulator of the 2017 Socialist party presidential first round, for which he was tasked with assessing the vote and preventing irregularities or mismanagement.

Mr Clay said candidates were “obstructing the reunification process” by “hanging onto despicable and depressing positions,” referring to stances taken following Ms Taubira’s victory.

“One more candidacy,” said Ms Hidalgo, the Socialist party candidate, on French TV France 5, adding that she would still continue her campaign. Ms Hidalgo’s comments were seconded by Mr Jadot. 

“It does not change anything,” said La France Insoumise’s candidate Mr Mélenchon on French TV France 5, adding he had been listed as a candidate by the Primaire populaire initiative against his will. 

Mr Clay said the three candidates should have embraced Ms Taubira’s call for unity as it represented “a unique second chance” to help them find “an honourable escape door.”

Ms Taubira had signed a “contrat de rassemblement,” a contract that would prop up reunification behind ecological, social justice and democratic renewal ideals, a term qualified as “vague” by Le Monde

She also pledged to incorporate the ideas of the “socle commun”, a list of ten campaign proposals chosen in April 2021 by ten different left-wing parties, into her programme. 

Mr Clay said the citizen movement behind the Primaire populaire was an “interesting democratic innovation” that he expected to see spread across other political parties in future elections.

He added that criticisms levelled at the Primaire populaire reflected an incapacity to adapt on the part of politicians, stating that it had not met expectations, putting the blame on Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

“He is the problem. He is costing the left the election,” he said.

The largest base for the left

The Primaire populaire citizen movement attracted 467,000 people to register, exceeding expectations, from which 392,738 voted over four days from Thursday to Sunday (January 27-30). 

People were asked to rank candidates on various key campaign-programmes under five labels: very good, good, fairly good, acceptable and insufficient. Ms Taubira finished with a majority of “good” votes, with 49% of voters having labeled her ideas “very good.”

The movement was created by two former students at Sciences Po University in Paris, taking shape as leftwing parties – torn between feeble voting figures and party divisions – suffered a spectacular downturn following President Emmanuel Macron’s election victory in 2017. 

Read more: French political parties: What killed off the Left and can it recover?

“This is the largest base to have designated a left candidate,” Ms Taubira said this morning on FranceInfo radio, signalling the success of the Primaire populaire in comparison to the recent  ecological primary that reunited 104,772 voters. 

The Primaire populaire has been widely dismissed as being pointless and likely to spread confusion before the real election takes place, especially as it includes Ms Hidalgo, Mr Mélenchon and Mr Jadot.

"It is neither populaire nor a primary," Patrick Kanner, the president of the socialist group and leader of the opposition in the Senate, told The Connexion.

Mr Kanner said the terms were inaccurate since "populaire" would have meant voting for a citizen rather than someone from a political party and "primaire" would have meant vocal debates not votes on campaign proposals.

Mr Kanner said he would have rather called it an "indicative digital consultation," adding the Primaire populaire had asked people to "vote on affection rather than on content."

Mr Kanner said only Ms Hidalgo, Mr Melenchon, and Mr Jadot had structured campaign programmes. 

"What I see is four trains on the starting track that will most likely not go far," he said, adding Ms Taubira was "making things more complicated.

"Ms Taubira sees herself as a legitimate candidate now, but what does this mean?" Mr Kanner asked Franceinfo. "We have one more candidate, and perhaps it will be one candidate too many in the context of a divided left."

During April’s election, Ms Taubira is currently predicted to gain 4.5% of votes according to Le HuffPost’s presidential election compiler, above Anne Hidalgo (2.8%) but behind Yannick Jadot (5.7%) and Jean-Luc Mélenchon (9.4%.)

President Emmanuel Macron has been leading in all newspaper polls with intention votes for him ranging between 22 and 24%. Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and Les Républicains candidate Valérie Pécresse are a close second, garnering 17.5% and 16.8% respectively, and far-right candidate Eric Zemmour is coming fourth with 12.9%.

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