January 31, 2022 - 1:31pm

You can take the teacher out of the classroom but you cannot take the classroom out of the teacher.

The Popular Primary of the Left, just completed, was invented by French academics in an attempt to create a strong and united Left-wing campaign for the French presidential elections in April.

The seven candidates were graded like undergraduates or PhD students with scores ranging from ‘good’ to ‘inadequate’. The winner, Christiane Taubira, a former Socialist justice minister, received a “bien plus” (somewhat better than good). Anne Hidalgo, the official Socialist candidate, came fifth with “passable plus” (slightly more than adequate). The last of the seven candidates, an unknown 24 years old, Anna Agueb-Porterie, was judged “insuffisant” (inadequate).   

The popular primary, independent of all political parties or factions, was seen by its promoters as a way to reconnect French politics with the grassroots. It was inspired partly by the bottom-up ideas of the Gilets Jaunes (yellow vest) movement of 2018-9. It was shaped by the near-certainty — now a reality – that the Left would run lots of competing candidates this year and that none would get near the two-candidate second round on 24 April. 

Another motive was to weaken the tyranny of opinion polls which play an even bigger role in French elections than elsewhere. France’s two-round system and the weakness of the old political parties or families of centre-Right and centre-Left make French polls almost part of the electoral machinery, not just a commentary on it.

The outcome of the four-day, online primary, was in effect a giant opinion poll, rather than a classic primary, with a computer programme working out the winner. Three of the candidates, those already in the election campaign proper, had rejected the results in advance (while secretly hoping to do well). The winner, Ms Taubira, who is 70 this week, says she wants to unite the Left but will now divide it further.

She will add to the six Left-wing candidates who are already in the first-round race. She currently has 3% support. She hopes that her primary “victory” will give her such momentum that other candidates will drop out and support her.

How would such momentum be observed? In the opinion polls of course. The “real” Left-wing primary will, despite the best intentions of the Primaire Populaire, be conducted there.

If one of the seven Lefties pushes ahead of the others, a large number of people could decide to switch their votes to push a Left-winger — any Left-winger — into contention for the two places in the run-off. The beneficiary is unlikely to be Ms Taubira, who has no party and no programme (so far).

It is more likely to be the hard-Left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon who benefitted from a similar “useful vote” in the weeks before the first round in 2017. He is currently on 10%. He has little chance of reaching a second round that will likely be a contest between President Emmanuel Macron and one of a trio of candidates from the Right and far-Right.

So has the Popular Primary been a pointless flop? In the short term, yes. As an exercise in grassroots democracy, it was quite impressive. Almost 500,000 people signed up to take part and 392,738 (80.1%) of them voted. Many of them were young people with no allegiance to the many existing parties and factions of the French Left. 

In the long term, the Primaire Populaire — perhaps with a less bizarre voting system — may provide the machinery for the creation of a new, broad French movement of the Left and Greens.

For its first effort, I’d say that its grade should be level 4 out of 5 – “passable moins”, slightly less than adequate.

John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.