The Magazine

The Battle for Paris

The next mayor of the French capital will be a woman. But which one?

Mar 31, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 28 • By ROGER KAPLAN
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If you inhabit the Left Bank of Paris, you live left and vote right. The Left Bank is on the southern shore of the river Seine, and the heart of it is the Latin Quarter and Saint-Germain-des-Prés, a small, dense country you can cross on foot in half an hour. Around here they vote right, though you may have some difficulty finding anyone who owns up to it. 

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There are a few neighborhoods on the far west side of the city with unapologetic conservative voters, just as on the city’s far east there are still echoes of the songs heard on the barricades of Paris’s revolutionary history. But people are sensible where a square meter of real estate is worth $10,000, and no one would call the popular, retiring mayor of the city, Bertrand Delanoë, lifelong Socialist, a class warrior. He has been in charge since 2001 (the first nominal leftist to hold the office), and when he turns over the keys to the Hôtel de Ville to his successor, who will be the city’s first lady mayor, she will pursue his policies of gentrification and beautification and his preference for avoiding big issues such as gay marriage and immigration, not to mention the huge economic problems of crushing deficits and stupendous unemployment. 

One possible next mayor is the center-right UMP’s Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, who is young (40), a mother of two, bright, gifted, rich, liberal. She was Nicolas Sarkozy’s environment minister, then communications director in his losing bid for reelection as president in 2012. She is mayor of a town in the Essonne, south of the capital. An ancestor was a hero of the American Revolution. She wants to convert some metro stations into swimming pools and make some neighborhoods auto-free. She is what we would call a politically correct liberal, and there are “dissident” conservative candidates who will drain votes from her in the first round of the election on March 23, as will the xenophobic National Front. 

Which should comfort the other possible post-Delanoë mayor, his loyal deputy, the attractive, youngish (54) Anne Hidalgo, whose parents brought her from Cadiz at age 2 and who is the very image of the modern nonideological Socialist apparatchik. She too wants to beautify the city with green spaces and pedestrian walks. And she wants “social housing,” what we call subsidized, along Avenue Foch, the Park Avenue of Paris.

To be sure, no one expects either Hidalgo or NKM, as Kosciusko-Morizet is known, to take her crazy plans off the drawing boards. The idea in Paris is to come across as big-hearted and do the sensible thing. Live left but govern right, that is the ticket. And it works the other way too: You can talk tough on crime, as NKM does (crime has been spiking in French cities), knowing that the mayor has nothing to do with law enforcement. The lady who appears most likely to keep the lid on will win. Hidalgo has played the game no less than NKM, as when she bravely shouted it out with London mayor Boris Johnson over which city is better for entrepreneurial capitalism. 

However that may be, it is Paris for sure that takes the prize for most opaque electoral system. Voters vote in their district, or arrondissement, and they choose not a candidate but a party list. The results determine who will sit on the 20 arrondissement councils, each of which elects an arrondissement mayor, and also sends its list-leaders to the all-city council, which in turn elects the mayor of Paris.

The handsome baroque building that holds the town hall of the Fifth Arrondissement, on the square of the Panthéon, has been held since 1983 by a conservative, shrewd, amiable, hard-nosed pol named Jean Tiberi, who was also mayor of Paris from 1995 to 2001. In this vital core of the Left Bank (the other Left Bank arrondissement, the Sixth, also has a conservative mayor), one is reminded of the New Yorker writer wondering how Nixon had won the presidency since she didn’t know anybody who voted for him. I have spent half my life in Paris, and I never met anyone who admitted voting for Jean Tiberi until Tiberi showed up on Rosh Hashanah at the shul in the rue Vauquelin and I asked the man next to me, who dat, and he said, the mayor. You guys vote for him? Sure. Goes to Midnight Mass, too, on Christmas Eve.

So there are Tiberi voters after all, and not, as the Socialists used to charge, simply ghosts, graveyard electors, nonresidents, invented ballots. 

Traditionally (if less theatrically), it was like this throughout Paris. Paris is the Jacobin city, the city of the Commune, the city of barricades and red flags, but it always voted right. You can have noble sentiments, but you want to temper them with common sense, and you want a city that works. To be sure, there were always red districts. Look at the map.

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