Have two mayoral candidates met their Paris match?
Parisians have to choose between the deputy mayor and the flamboyant and combative woman who is hot on her heels
First lady: Anne Hidalgo, deputy mayor of Paris and Socialist Party candidate in the forthcoming mayoral election campaigning in a city restaurant. Photograph: Philippe Wojazer
First lady: Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, conservative UMP party candidate in the forthcoming Paris mayoral election, speaking to a butcher at a street market while campaigning in the city. Photograph: Philippe Wojazer/Reuters
Parisians will elect a woman mayor for the first time on March 30th. The demography of the capital favours the current deputy mayor, 54-year-old Anne Hidalgo, the daughter of working-class Spanish immigrants and the protegee of the outgoing socialist mayor Bertrand Delanoë.
But 40-year-old Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, a former conservative cabinet minister from a family of mayors, ambassadors and senators who have been active in French politics for four generations, is a serious challenger.
For the first time NKM, as she is known, overtook Hidalgo in a poll on Thursday, with 39 per cent of intended votes in the first round, compared with 38 per cent for Hidalgo. However, Hidalgo would still win the run-off, with 51.5 per cent to 48.5 per cent for NKM.
Over lunch of sauerkraut and red wine with European journalists, NKM explains her philosophy of the city. “Everyone seeks a form of emancipation in Paris,” she says. “Whether collective or individual, economic or social. In every epoch, people ‘come up’ to Paris from the provinces to work and to climb the social ladder. That’s the story of every Rastignac [the ambitious student in Balzac’s Old Goriot] . . . One expects something special of Paris, the ordinary and the extraordinary.”
Where Hidalgo is discreet and team-spirited, NKM is flamboyant and combative, with a tendency to spar with right-wing male rivals. She has a sparkle and star power that Hidalgo lacks. Four books have been published about NKM, and none about Hidalgo.
When NKM was pregnant in 2006, she posed for Paris Match in a gossamer dress, lying on a bed of leaves like a wood sylph, alongside a harp. Once, when inaugurating a swimming pool, she took off a long coat to reveal a swimsuit, and dived in.
Perhaps only in France would an engineering degree from the prestigious École Polytechnique and a prominent family be disadvantages. “I tend to agree with the 48 per cent who find her arrogant,” Hidalgo said of NKM last summer. “Having worked hard to pass a competitive exam shouldn’t be considered a defect,” NKM replies. “And I’m not going to apologise for my family.”
NKM’s alleged presidential ambitions are another argument Hidalgo uses against her. The election “is about serving Paris, not using Paris,” Hidalgo said in her closing barb during their first debate on Wednesday evening.
“I can’t say where I’ll be in 20 years,” NKM replies. “But if I’m chosen by the citizens of Paris, I will resign from the National Assembly and will not stand for any other office during my term.”
Because of deep dissatisfaction with President Hollande, the socialists expect to take a battering in the nationwide municipal elections. NKM has so far refrained from exploiting what could be the winning card. She doesn’t mention Hollande once during lunch. She doesn’t mention Hidalgo either, but criticises the socialists’ “ideological management” of the capital.
“Buying a €21 million building in the [elegant, expensive] avenue Georges V to make 26 subsidised apartments is an ideological decision,” NKM says. “The money could have been better invested elsewhere, including in social housing.”
NKM would respect the law requiring French cities to reserve 25 per cent of housing for poor people. However, she says, “The middle class is my priority, because Paris is being drained of middle-class residents. You have to be rich or on welfare to live here. People who earn a salary in Paris must be able to find housing.”
To reverse the rising crime rate, NKM advocates laws against begging, doubling the number of surveillance cameras and the establishment of neighbourhood police forces. She wants expulsion orders against Roma encampments on the outskirts of Paris to be acted upon, which is not always the case at present.
Paris is engaged “on a downward slope,” NKM notes. The city has fallen from third to seventth place in the number of tourists intending to visit, and it’s no longer the number-one destination for international conferences. Paris is 24th in terms of cleanliness, according to TripAdvisor. “The vocation of Paris is not to be a rubbish bin,” NKM says. “There is 16 per cent absenteeism among bin collectors; it’s not managed. There’s no energy.”
Today, NKM says, creative French youths are attracted to Berlin. Business leaders go to London. “When youths who have done Erasmus [European scholarships] want to party, they do it in Barcelona. Paris must be in the avant-garde. I don’t want her to become ordinary.”
One solution, she says, is to bring night life to the city, to unused spaces including “phantom Metro stations,” abandoned industrial sites and the huge Baron-le-Roy tunnel under Bercy-Charenton in eastern Paris. The 12th arrondissement, where the tunnel is located, is “the Ohio of Paris”, a “swing” district that could determine the election. Sexism exists in every profession, NKM says. “The keener the competition, the worse the sexism: when things are difficult, men think, We’re not going to compete with women too . . .
“When I was young, I thought feminism was a thing of the 1970s, that the problem was solved. That was a mistake, and unfair to the women who led the feminist battle before us,” she says
NKM is often asked about the “first” of two women candidates for one of the best jobs in French politics. “I’ve been female for 40 years,” she says. “I’m used to it. It’s strange that people still think it’s strange.”