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Paris mayor's race sees incumbent Anne Hidalgo as narrow favourite for 2020

Philippe Lopez, AFP | Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo during a press conference before the inauguration ceremony for the contemporary greenhouses of Auteuil and the Simonne Mathieu tennis court at Roland-Garros in Paris on March 21, 2019.

Five years into her term as Paris mayor, Anne Hidalgo is poised to officially launch her campaign for re-election in 2020. The incumbent’s prominence gives her an advantage, but her accomplishments have also drawn plenty of criticism.

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Since her election in 2014, Anne Hidalgo has stood out: the first woman to conquer the French capital is one of the most influential Socialist Party figures on the national stage. “She has never played the games of the political machinery. She has managed to maintain her freedom while remaining loyal to her political family,” a source among her in inner circle explained. After the landslide that President Emmanuel Macron’s upstart La République en Marche party enjoyed in Paris in the 2017 legislative elections – the fledgling LREM won 12 of the capital’s 18 National Assembly seats, virtually wiping out its Socialist lawmakers – the Socialist mayor of Paris today stands as a symbol of resistance to that ballot-box domination.

Paris the eco-city, applauded and derided

Without a doubt, Hidalgo’s dogged battle to thin out car traffic in Paris has been the signature of her term, as seen in an array of construction projects throughout the city. That enterprise earns acclaim from supporters who laud her political courage, but some Parisians strongly oppose what they see as efforts to complicate their lives.

In recent years, a number of tricky dossiers have tarnished some of Paris’s green-minded ambitions: the Autolib’ carshare service was aborted, switching service providers for the Vélib’ bikesharing scheme proved catastrophic, and pedestrianising quayside roads along the Seine hit hurdle after hurdle while the city’s cleanliness issues and rat problems persist.

'The Queen-Mayor of Paris'

In his new book “La Reine maire de Paris”, François Déletraz, editor-in-chief of the conservative Le Figaro Magazine, paints Hidalgo as something of a schoolmarm, strict and inflexible. Released April 3 with municipal elections a year away, Déletraz’s fiery critique accuses Hidalgo’s administration of radically increasing the city’s debt (from €3.6 billion to €6 billion in four years) with her social housing projects and the financial “fiasco” of architectural projects including the new Philharmonic and Les Halles’s costly Canopy. Hidalgo is accused of cronyism for allegedly favouring associations linked to the Socialist party and of spending millions on “amateurish” public relations. While the book appears to give Hidalgo some credit for her skill in obtaining the 2024 Olympic Games, its conclusion is merciless: That the mayor has put her fanciful international ambitions ahead of the concerns of ordinary Parisians.

>> Read more: Few bikes and no cars to share: Paris's summer of discontent

Within the mayor’s inner circle, meanwhile, Hidalgo is seen has having kept her campaign promises. “Her record on environmental transition is very positive, just as it is on economics. Paris is back on the podium of Europe’s most dynamic cities (third after London and Cambridge, according to Savills IM 2018),” a source in Hidalgo’s entourage said. “As far as the architectural projects are concerned, those were construction works launched well before her term.”

Leading in the polls… narrowly

Despite the criticism, Hidalgo enters the 2020 Paris mayoralty campaign as the favourite. A survey by the Ifop polling firm, released in late March, placed her on top in the elections’ first round for every scenario it tested. Another pollster, Elabe, saw the Socialist winning in four of the six scenarios it put to the test.

But some believe Hidalgo’s narrow lead is not enough to obscure a chequered record. “Mayors of large cities usually enjoy an extremely favourable context coming out of their first terms, in terms of credibility, prominence and also in terms of concrete reforms. From that perspective, Anne Hidalgo has some ground to make up,” said political scientist Bruno Cautrès, a research at the Centre for Political Research (CEVIPOF) in Paris. “Still, she is a combative personality with an assertive political identity, which could play in her favour in this campaign, which is likely to be a difficult one.”

Those close to Hidalgo concede her misses, but they consider the current dynamic favourable. “The difficulties we met with on Vélib’ and Autolib’ are behind us and the big construction works undertaken on the Place de la Bastille, the cycling paths and the green spaces will soon be completed,” the source said. “One must differentiate between the criticism that can be levelled against her on the national level and the perceptions of Parisians.”

A growing list of candidates

The City of Light is evidently coveted. Many see in Hidalgo’s rough patch an opportunity to end the Socialists 20-year hold on the capital. Remarkably, on March 27, two government ministers stepped down in order to mount their bids for Paris City Hall: Former government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux, who is thought to be Macron’s preferred candidate, and Mounir Mahjoubi, the ex-junior minister for digital affairs. The Fields Medal-winning mathematician and La République en Marche MP Cédric Villani, a former Hidalgo associate, is also planning to vie for the office.

Among conservative hopefuls, one name stands out: Rachida Dati. A former justice minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, she is mayor of Paris’s seventh arrondissement. Like Hidalgo, Dati has the advantage of strong name recognition and knows her way around a tough political battle.

Other candidates in the starting blocks for 2020 include Gaspard Gantzer, who was an aide to former Socialist president François Hollande, and green EELV party hopeful Julien Bayou.

But in Cautrès’s estimation, those best placed to win the mayor’s office in 2020 will be candidates from the major parties. “The elections play out arrondissement by arrondissement and even though the greens are likely to earn a good score, it is the political alliances that will determine the outcome of the vote. Not all of the candidates have declared yet, so the game remains extremely open.”

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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