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The end of the French left

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PARIS — The torrential rain was the least of Christiane Taubira’s worries as she stood in a market in an impoverished Paris suburb and announced her candidacy for president of France.

Flanked by supporters from the Socialist and Green parties, the former justice minister and progressive heavyweight railed against the “deadlock” and division on the left. With the election just three months away, President Emmanuel Macron looks set to face off against one of three right-wing or far-right candidates — with no progressive hopeful so far able to crack double digits in the polls.

France’s once-dominant Socialist Party is in tatters. The Greens have failed to take off. Both trail behind the far-left France Unbowed party, which is polling at 9 percent. A smattering of other minor candidates litter the bottom of the polls.

“Taubira is the only person who can unite other candidates and the people of the left,” said Johan Jousseaume, a spokesperson for a citizens’ movement backing her bid, on the sidelines of her visit. “She’s not just another candidate, but someone who can bring everybody together.”

Taubira’s solution to the left’s worries: a cross-party primary as “the last chance to unite the left” that would reenergize progressives and rally them behind a single standard-bearer. “We are still stuck in a deadlock, there is no sign we are coming together, so now it’s time to let the left-wing voters decide,” she said. “The stakes are huge: people’s lives, youth, the future of our country.”

Her biggest problem: So far, she’s the only candidate of consequence standing.

Leftwing superstar

There’s no questioning Taubira’s leftwing pedigree — or her appeal among that section of voters.

She is one of 11 siblings who was raised by a single mother in the overseas region of French Guiana. Of her birth, she has written: “I was born a woman, Black, poor, what a start in life! So many challenges to take up.”

She campaigned for Guianese independence before being elected to the National Assembly as the only member from her Walwari party, a leftist movement that became allied with the Socialists. She served in Brussels as an MEP before joining a Socialist government in 2012.

As justice minister, Taubira, now 69, became the face of one of the biggest victories of the French left in recent years, the battle in favor of same-sex marriage in 2013, which brought thousands onto the streets and pitched progressives against conservatives. She also played a prominent role in pushing through legislation condemning slavery as a crime against humanity. 

“She is a woman with a broad mind, with strong convictions, a real stateswoman,” said Erwann Binet, a Socialist politician who worked alongside Taubira on same-sex marriage. “The reason why she steals the limelight is that she is sincere. There’s no double-talk with her. That’s why she is so popular.”

At a time when the left seems to be losing the battle of ideas, Taubira’s candidacy provides progressives with a symbol they can rally behind — a Black woman who reached the pinnacle of power in a country where minorities are under-represented. A recent poll by Ipsos showed that Taubira was the most popular politician among left-wing voters. 

“There’s something about charisma in politics,” said a Socialist Party insider who does not back her bid. “All successful presidential candidates, including [former presidents] Sarkozy, Hollande, all benefited from an irrational moment of belief in them.”

Taubira has that, the Socialist insider said, in contrast to the party’s official candidate, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, whose entry into the race failed to ignite enthusiasm.

In November, when Hidalgo was struggling to whip up enthusiasm on the campaign trail, Taubira was cheered on by thousands as she read poetry during a guest appearance at a music concert in Paris.

“What I’ve seen on the ground is that she attracts people from different backgrounds,” said Binet, the former Socialist MP and Taubira supporter. “I’ve met ecologists, Socialists and far-left activists who are worried about divisions in the left but interested in her.”

Primary concerns

While Taubira’s supporters are hoping her return to active politics will shake things up, the task facing her is daunting.

The breakthrough candidate this cycle is Eric Zemmour, a television pundit and essayist who has twice been convicted for inciting racial and religious hatred. His emergence as a challenger to Marine Le Pen as the candidate of the far-right raised the heat in French debates on identity, nationality and immigration.

Together with Valérie Pécresse, the candidate of the right-wing Les Républicains party, Zemmour and Le Pen pose the greatest threats to Macron.

On the left, Taubira is joining a crowded space, with no fewer than eight candidates, including far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the Green candidate Yannick Jadot. Hidalgo, the Socialist candidate, is polling at 4 percent, putting her on track to get less than the 6.2 percent of the vote the party received when it suffered the worst defeat of its history in 2017.

And yet, despite the fragmented field, no other candidate has agreed to take part in Taubria’s primary.

“It’s not facing the risk of democracy as [Taubira] says, it’s facing a panel of people and we have no idea how they have been selected,” Mélenchon said on Sunday, referring to the fact that the people who have registered to participate in the primary are a self-selecting group.

The Greens, which organized their own inner-party primary in September, are equally unenthusiastic. “No means no,” said Jadot, speaking on France Info radio. “[The Popular primary] is like a death cult, a place of total depression where the mantra is, ‘We are going to lose, and you have to stick together.’”

Hidalgo has been more ambivalent. She was briefly in favor of a left-wing primary in December (a move that was aimed at Jadot, not Taubira), but then retracted her support. She’s now under pressure from a majority of her party to participate. According to a Socialist heavyweight who spoke to POLITICO’s Paris Playbook, the party’s top brass are concerned that not participating will make them look insincere and fickle.

Asked by reporters about the significance of her rivals’ refusals to participate, Taubira refused to be drawn. “You can turn it into an endless soap opera, but we’ll see what happens,” she said. “Politics really means something for me, and it means something for the people.”

Winner takes none

With so many candidates already in the race, some have questioned Taubira’s motives for joining the fray.

While she’s seen by French commenters as the clear favorite among those who have signed up to vote in the primary, her bid has also brought back humiliating memories for the left.

In a previous presidential bid in 2002, she got just 2.3 percent of the vote as a candidate for the Radical Party of the Left. That helped draw away support from the Socialist standard-bearer Lionel Jospin, who came in third, less than a percentage point behind the far-right firebreather Jean-Marie Le Pen who advanced to challenge Jacques Chirac in the second round of voting.

Several weeks after Taubira first hinted she wanted to stand for president, she has yet to attract a prominent supporter into her camp.

“I’ve got a lot of affection for Taubira,” said Rachid Temal, a Socialist senator, who worked as a former campaign director for an ally of Taubira and now backs Hidalgo. “She is a moral figure, but I don’t think that her proposals are right for France.”

“Unlike Taubira, Hidalgo has twice been elected mayor of Paris and can rally people round her … she has worked with foreign leaders and has support across France,” Temal added. “The question is whose finger do you want on the nuclear button? My choice is made.”

Given the disarray on the left, the question is what impact progressive voters — left politically homeless by the internecine struggles — will have on the rest of the field. That will be especially important in the second round of voting when the top two candidates from the first round face off.

“Taubira’s candidacy adds confusion to the division on the left,” said Patrick Kanner, a Socialist senator and supporter of Hidalgo, “She says she doesn’t want to be yet another candidate in the race, but nobody wants to withdraw to back her, so she is just another candidate.” 

Few among the left have affection for Macron, who campaigned in 2017 as a “progressive candidate” who transcended traditional political divides, but who is seen by progressives as having governed from the right.

If the French president faces Zemmour or Le Pen in the second round, he’s likely to attract enough votes from the left to prevail. Against Pécresse, however, the story could play out differently.

Though Macron is still favored to win against the conservative candidate, he wouldn’t be able to take support from progressives for granted.

“Between Pécresse and Macron, the difference is in the shade of conservatism, it’s not as fundamental of nature as it is with Zemmour and Le Pen,” said one Socialist MP. “If that’s the choice, I think I’ll be busy washing my hair on election day.”

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