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.

It is not the Left Bank that is red but the east side of the Right Bank, where the squares and streets have names like Bastille, Colonel Fabien (a Communist hero of the Resistance), and Bataille-de-Stalingrad. The arrondissements here still vote red, maybe from habit. The Twentieth stayed left in 2008 with nearly 70 percent of the votes, and there is no reason to believe it will change. Next door, the Nineteenth did the same, by a smaller majority.

The UMP led by NKM thought this was its year because President François Hollande, a Socialist, is very unpopular, despite his defense of black Africa, a task he has undertaken with a modesty and a determination that one would like to see in an American president engaged in long wars. The UMP is banking on voters’ anxieties over issues closer to them than Africa, such as the high cost of living, which combined with precarious employment can be hell. Anxiety, however, may be simply the normal French temperament, balanced by thoughts of the three-hour Sunday lunch and plans for the six weeks at the seashore in summertime. 

Hidalgo, bright, good-looking, capable, experienced in all aspects of municipal affairs, is ahead in the citywide polls, if not in the arrondissement where she is running, the Fifteenth, a nice, airy place to live, near the Champ de Mars, with parks and sports facilities. The arrondissement is held by the right and may well stay that way. But under the electoral-list system, Hidalgo will surely receive a seat on the arrondissement council, from which she could still make the move to the Paris city hall.

The problem with the right is that Kosciusko-Morizet, heiress to two great French families representing politics and commerce, and herself a brainy techie yuppie, is not well liked in the UMP. She is green, in the environmentalist sense of the word, she has an engineering bent, she is for modern things, innovation, science. Leading a deeply divided party and contending with the National Front ultras, she may see the left finally seize the Fifth, where Jean Tiberi’s son is leading a dissident right-wing list against NKM’s designated UMP regular. 

NKM, running in the Fourteenth, could win her council seat while, like her rival next door, leaving the other side in control of the district. Delusions of grandeur? Maybe the UMP thought that 2014 was so sure to be their year that they would sweep Paris the way Jacques Chirac used to, and NKM would garner fame and glory by capturing the red Fourteenth. 

In this regard at least, the Paris elections are representative of the contests in the country’s other 30,000 municipalities (the most in Europe; Germany, for example, has 12,000). The right is not expected to seriously dent the Socialists’ control of a large majority of French towns, with only Marseilles and Bordeaux among the bigs staying in conservative hands. By the same token, the National Front, competing seriously in under 100 localities, may get as many as 10, including depressed places like Forbach in the eastern rust belt and Hénin-Beaumont near Belgium, as well as some towns in its traditional bases in the Mediterranean south. 

We shall know soon enough. The east of Paris is red, the west is blue, and in between, the arrondissements around the Louvre, the tony streets, the Tuileries, the palace whence Hollande scooters about on secret love missions, are generally blue, but you never know these days, with the UMP and the Socialists happily being elites in the city where, they say, deserving Americans go after they die.

Roger Kaplan is a writer in Washington.

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