As one of Europe’s largest cities, the outcome of this month’s municipal elections in Paris are perhaps of greater significance than most local government races. The contest to replace Bertram Delanoë as Mayor of Paris represented the first major electoral test of François Hollande’s ailing presidency, and a negative verdict on the Socialists’ record could influence the direction of his administration. The fact that the two most prominent mayoral candidates are women also added to a sense of excitement around what might otherwise have been a fairly run-of-the-mill vote.
But the race to become Paris’ first female mayor has been far from the conservative breakthrough many had predicted. Despite the spectre of the often shambolic government of President Hollande hanging over her, the Parti Socialiste candidate Anne Hidalgo is the firm favourite over the centre-right UMP’s Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet.
Current deputy mayor Ms Hidalgo has bold ideas – transforming the city into an international-class digital city and revitalising Paris’s global and European profile in the face of competition from London are among objectives she shares with her conservative rival. But it is her plans for the city’s plush Avenue Foch on the Periphérique ring road that have attracted most controversy.
Ms Hidalgo wants to turn the wide boulevard, which runs from the Arc de Triomphe to the Bois de Boulogne, into an accessible green park for the masses. Perhaps most shockingly of all, she has announced plans to construct social housing along the route – home to some of Paris’s richest residents. Council houses on Billionaire’s Row, effectively.
The move has attracted much criticism from local residents, who in the spirit of NIMBYism and snobbery see the plan as diminishing the grandeur of one of Paris’s most famous streets and – arguably most threateningly – lowering the social tone of the area. Campaigners angry at the redevelopment proposals follow Ms Hidalgo across the city waving banners and placards.
The message of Ms Kosciusko-Morizet, meanwhile, couldn’t be further from her opponent’s. The former Sarkozy minister, commonly known to all by her initials NKM, is running on a platform of regeneration and glamorisation. While her manifesto carries all of the hallmarks of a typical centre-right candidate, her most eye-catching policy is the refurbishment of Paris’s 16 unused Métro stations. Extravagant designs for underground ballet theatres, fancy restaurants and swimming pools risk her campaign seeming out of touch with the concerns of ordinary voters.
Indeed, it is surprising that NKM has chosen the Métro network as one of her key policy platforms. She has in the past been widely ridiculed for not knowing the price of a Métro ticket – overestimating its value by almost 250% – and referring to the system as “charming”. Opposition politicians were quick to point out that daily commuters on the packed network might fail to recognise such a description.
It would be wrong to boil down a wave of municipal elections which cover a wide range of local and city-level issues to a bunfight over two policies. This is not the case. In fact the two rivals are in many ways remarkably close on a range of issues, with broad consensus over the city’s challenges and indeed much about how to tackle them.
But the headline pet projects certainly encapsulate the different narratives of the two campaigns, and the divergent worldviews of the two candidates. On the one hand, a Socialist determined to increase accessibility and social diversity in some of Paris’s most elitist neighbourhoods; on the other a centre-right contender focussed on cleaning up the city and gentrifying particularly dirty spots. Spots like disused Métro stations currently serving as shelters for the homeless.
Ms Hidalgo’s lead is thanks in part to her early success in distancing herself from President Hollande and indeed her party in general – refusing to use the PS’s logo on her election materials. Her UMP opponents had hoped to capitalise on the Socialist chef d’état’s record levels of unpopularity, but have consistently been left trailing.
Mayor of Paris is a powerful position in France. Jacques Chirac graduated from an 18 year stint at the Hôtel de Ville to a 12 year period as President. In a political system where parties have less clear hierarchies than, say, the United Kingdom, the post can also serve as an important figurehead.
If Ms Hidalgo takes the title, she would cement a position of Socialist darling, proving that the centre-left can succeed despite Mr Hollande’s low ratings and catapulting her to the very top of the PS’s ranks. A win for Ms Kosciusko-Moziret would set her up as the de facto leader of the UMP and frontrunner to challenge Mr Hollande at the next presidential contest.
With the elections just weeks away there is still time for movement in the polls, and we cannot say for sure who will be next the capital’s next mayor. One thing seems sure, though – Paris’s municipal elections may just be the queenmaker of French politics.