On February 7, the house was not quite full for a public meeting hosted by UMP mayor of the 17th arrondissement and Paris mayoral candidate Françoise de Panafieu. “Do I have to remind you that this is not a national test? Do I have to tell you that we are not about to elect the head of state?”, she said, between two attacks on Socialist outgoing mayor Bertrand Delanoë. In recent weeks, opinion polls have been tough both on her and on Nicolas Sarkozy.
In Paris, local issues quickly take a national dimension. Municipal elections are a community event, but they can also be seen as an opportunity to politicise the campaign and test the popularity of the government's policy in between national elections. This is the case in next March's vote.
"The situation has been getting tricky since the end of December", said Brice Teinturier of polling institute TNS-Sofres. "The falling popularity of the president and the disappointment on the issue of purchasing power could lead right-wing voters to feel discouraged and have consequences in a number of cities."
The right has more to lose. The left got a self-esteem boost when it secured Paris and Lyon in the 2001 municipal election, but the ruling UMP party (Union for a Popular Movement) won around 20 cities of more than 30,000 inhabitants.
A right-wing stronghold that switched to the left
In Paris, Françoise de Panafieu is trying to gather support while keeping a distance between herself and Sarkozy. Some 78% of Parisians approve of her opponent Bertrand Delanoë's policy. The Left holds 12 of the city's 20 arrondissements. The UMP has eight and is eyeing up four more.
The current mayor, who was elected in 2001, has reasons to be confident. A poll by CSA for Le Parisien newspaper found that he could secure 44% of the vote in the first round of the election, vs. 36% for the UMP candidate. He would also win the runoff with 57% of the ballots.
There are also reasons to be prudent. "Paris is a right-wing city that switched to the left beacuse of the right's internal divisions", said Pascal Perrineau, an elections expert at Sciences-Po university. In 1977, Jacques Chirac was the first Paris mayor to be elected since the 19th century. He was triumphally re-elected twice, sweeping all 20 arrondissements. In last May's presidential election, Parisian voters put Nicolas Sarkozy first.
'Bobo' voters weigh in
Bertrand Delanoë addresses the aspirations of many voters through high-profile cultural events such as the Nuit blanche (White Night) and successful ventures like the Paris-Plage temporary summer beach and the Vélib self-serve bicycle hire service. “The social structure of Paris has changed with the emergence of the 'bobos', i.e. young professionnals with high income who have settled where the working class used to live", said Bertrand Gréco, author of Municipales 2008, la bataille de Paris (2008 Municipal Elections: the Battle for Paris).
Françoise de Panafieu describes herself as "the candidate of the essential" as opposed to the one she dubs the "sparkle mayor". She is especially trying to appeal to middle class families who are being priced out of Paris, accusing Bertrand Delanoë of having sacrificed them for the sake of the bobos. Imitating Nicolas Sarkozy, she promises them a higher disposable income through the construction of 4,000 new housing units per year without any tax increase.
Unlike the right, whose electoral base is clearly identified as the western half of the city, the Socialists cannot rely on a class vote. "This is an image campaign, with symbolic policies that score high in electoral terms, but Paris has not deeply changed", said Pascal Perrineau. And the 'bourgeois-bohemians', or bobos, with their progressist, slightly hedonistic ideals, are unstable voters and could easily slide towards the Greens or the centrist Modem party.
A launch pad for national ambitions?
The battle for Paris is also about the outgoing mayor's national ambitions. According to Françoise de Panafieu, Bertrand Delanoë has only a short-term interest in Paris and is building a base to take control of the Socialist Party and become its candidate for the 2012 presidential election. Very much like Jacques Chirac, who prepared his 1995 successful bid for the Elysée palace from his Parisian stronghold.
Delanoë denies this, albeit unconvincingly. He was first elected as a Paris local councillor in 1977 and held the number three position at the Socialist Party for a number of years. His successful career in Paris has given him the image of a legitimate national figure. His popularity grew when he came out as a homosexual on television in 1998 and when he narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in 2001. The failed Paris bid for the 2012 did him no visible damage.
Bertrand Delanoë projects the image of a modest, hard-working, honest man, which is not necessarily true, according to Bertrand Gréco. “He has a natural authority that has allowed him to rally Parisian Socialists around him and nobody denies this any more. But he has a lot of enemies in the party."
In this campaign, having no ties with the government is an advantage for Delanoë. Françoise de Panafieu has to deal with contradictory intervention from the Elysée palace. “Nicolas Sarkozy cannot leave Paris aside," said Bertrand Gréco. "Paris is the last step before the 2010 regional election, and he would like to guarantee a UMP victory in the Ile-de-France region, which includes 12 million people i.e. one fifth of the French population."
With one month to go before the election, the Left seems to have a national lead in opinion polls. François Bayrou's Modem party could be a kingmaker, including in Paris where it appears to favour an alliance with the Left. Meanwhile, speculation is rife on the prospect of a Sarkozy-Delanoë showdown in 2012. A double victory in this election, in Paris and on a national scale, would certainly reinforce Bertrand Delanoë's ambitions.