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Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo's popularity on the wane, says poll

AFP file photo | Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has built a reputation as a politician unafraid of making ‘unpopular’ decisions but a new poll published Sunday suggests the reform-driven eco-conscious socialist could be facing the start of a pushback from voters.

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Only 42 percent of Parisians said they were satisfied with their mayor, Anne Hidalgo, according to an Ifop poll published in the French Journal du Dimanche on Sunday. The results show a 10 point slide in her popularity compared to the previous poll in March 2016 when 52 percent of respondents gave the mayor their approval.

"This survey may well be a turning point," said Frédéric Dabi, Deputy Director General of Ifop. “The mayor of Paris is far from having irretrievably lost the next election, but she’s now become a challenger in the city where she was once the favourite and where Emmanuel Macron now holds the upper hand.”

Residents were asked in the survey to rate the mayor’s performance across a range of services, and while the municipality fared well overall, two key services registered the sharpest drop in satisfaction – cleaning, and traffic and transport.

Hidalgo has already confirmed she plans to stand for re-election as mayor in municipal elections in 2020, giving her time to reverse the poll’s downward trend. Most worrying for Hidalgo is the loss of confidence in her policies on traffic and transport, which are fundamentally critical in her mission to transform Paris into a globally ‘green’ city.

In a city congested by traffic jams, or ‘embouteillages’, Hidalgo’s proposal to make public transport free may go some way towards regaining the confidence of her constituents. She announced a feasibility study into the plan last week saying it would help reduce air pollution.

Such a goal would require making public transport more attractive, she said.

“To improve public transport we should not only make it more extensive, more consistent and more comfortable, we must also rethink the fares system,” she said in a statement. Many smaller French cities already offer free buses.

Critics argue that the benefits of the policy may only be marginal while any ‘rethink of the fares’ may overburden taxpayers – transport users in Paris contribute some €3.8 billion to the Paris city coffers.

A 2015 study by Eurostat, the EU’s statistics agency, showed Parisians are already one of the highest users of public transport in Europe, with more than 60 per cent of people taking the metro, buses and trains. At the same time, a little over 25 per cent of people said they use their car to commute.

Going car-free

Since she took office in 2014, Hidalgo has made reducing car usage one of her top priorities. She led the charge to change resident’s car habits when in 2015, she inaugurated car-free days.

Shortly afterwards she hit a roadblock with a contentious proposal to permanently turn the iconic Berges de la Seine, the thoroughfare that runs along the banks of the Seine, into a pedestrian-only zone with a view to transforming the space into public parks and more bike lanes. The road is a major arterial route for cars reaching the centre of Paris. Her detractors questioned whether this time she had gone too far in underestimating the tolerance of Parisians for change.

“Must I point out that the fight against air pollution has to be a collective effort and not rammed through single-mindedly?” opposition local lawmaker Vincent Roger wrote in an angry op-ed to Hidalgo on August 28.

“It must be waged not just within the city limits, but in the metropolitan and even regional level. Your project, because it shifts [road] traffic, moves the problem but does nothing to solve it,” he added.

An independent commission advised the Paris City Council against the move and the ban was overturned in February this year. The motorists’ rights group 40 Million d’Automobilistes called the court ruling “a first victory” and said it hoped that “from now on, automobile traffic will be re-established as quickly as possible on these roads”.

The "victory" was shortlived. Hidalgo immediately responded using her power of veto as mayor to maintain the ban, saying she would take "all necessary measures" to ensure it remains in place. The road is still closed to cars.

Global 'green' credentials

Hidalgo may have lost one battle in the "war on cars", but she continued undeterred. She cast her political net wider, repositioning herself at the forefront of the fight against climate change.

In 2016, the Paris mayor was voted president of the C40 Cities group, a network that includes some of the world’s largest cities, with the stated goal of sharing ideas and expertise on tackling climate change.

Then in April the same year, as the world’s leading environment scientists, activists, politicians and journalists descended on the French capital, Hidalgo became a high profile participant in talks that led to the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement, a historic pact that put Paris at the centre of the international discourse on climate change.

Hidalgo soon topped off the success of the Paris agreement with a winning bid to host the 2024 Olympic Games, a bid strongly aided by the city’s green credentials.

Hidalgo was quickly becoming one of the most recognised political advocates for globally green cities both in France and internationally. And it seemed likely she would continue her upward trajectory until a policy last October to overhaul Paris’s hire bike system put the city’s cyclists offside.

In January this year, only 113 of the bike’s docking stations were installed – well short of the 600 that had been promised by the New Year – and the 1400 that are supposed to be in operation by the end of March are yet to materialise. The policy blunder may have alienated a primary support base for the mayor – the city’s thousands of cyclists – who called the situation a ‘nightmare’, with the Cyclists group Paris en Selle (Paris in the Saddle) calling on the city to give cyclists three months free use as compensation.

Rigid leadership style

While her policies have come under harsh scrutiny, so too has her leadership style. The Socialist mayor has been criticised for being too rigid, of being averse to consulting with other councillors, or heeding advice that challenges her viewpoint.

Hidalgo was accused of "undemocratically" pushing through the measure to pedestrianise the Berges de la Seine road without proper consultation.

Valérie Pécresse, the conservative president of the Ile-de-France region, said of Hidalgo after the plan was overturned: “Very clearly, it is the brutality of [her] method that the court has sanctioned.”

The council’s opposition conservative party Les Républicains said in a statement: “The administrative court reminded the mayor of Paris of the obvious: She is not above the law and cannot decide alone against all.”

Whatever polls say about her popularity, Hidalgo remains France’s highest profile Socialist since the 2017 presidential elections all but annihilated the party propelling the ‘unknown’ Emmanuel Macron into the Elysée Palace. And so it will take more than a less than flawless eco-friendly record to knock her out of contention for the mayoralty in 2020.

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