PARIS (AP) — The battle to win the hearts of Parisians and preside over France’s capital from the opulent city hall, has been nasty, and unpredictable.
Parisians have been dished up a sex video scandal that triggered the surprise withdrawal of the candidate for President Emmanuel Macron’s party, a last-minute replacement and mud-slinging about the filth of Paris streets, bedbugs and rats. As Sunday’s first round of municipal elections approaches, voters have been left to contemplate the underbelly of the City of Light.
Three women top polls, including incumbent Mayor Anne Hidalgo, a Socialist best known for her divisive effort to rid Paris of cars. She wants to create “mini-forests” with 170,000 newly-planted trees and make the city center fully bicycle-friendly.
Trees, plenty of them, from urban forests to planted promenades, made a late appearance on the agendas of most of the eight candidates in the Paris race of France’s municipal elections.
The nationwide voting is about local issues and centers on choosing the mayor, traditionally the most liked political figure among French. But local elections can help lay the groundwork for presidential voting in two years, so the stakes are high, and Paris — where the next mayor will host the 2024 Olympics — is the crown jewel.
Macron risks a huge humiliation. His centrist party, The Republic on the Move, which he created from scratch before his 2017 election, lacks local power bases, meaning it is likely to fare poorly.
Seized during the French Revolution, set afire in a brutal 1871 repression, Paris City Hall, drenched in 338 statues and grander than the presidential Elysee Palace, is indeed a plum. Protocol demands that visiting heads of state visit the Paris mayor.
Rachida Dati, a conservative justice minister under former President Nicolas Sarkozy, is tasting victory. A reborn Dati, who exchanged her extravagant tastes for no-nonsense dress and an austere style, is running neck-and-neck with Hidalgo. Dati puts cleaning up Paris streets and securing them with armed municipal police and a plethora of video cameras her priority.
“It’s anarchy everywhere” and “revolting filth,” she said in a debate last week when candidates threw daggers at Hidalgo.
Third in recent polls and late-comer, Agnes Buzyn, a physician, was no kinder to the current mayor, saying that “we will all die” if Paris, Europe’s most densely populated capital, doesn’t cool down, a reference to the omnipresent concrete and Hidalgo’s project to build more towers.
Buzyn, a medical doctor, was plucked from her job as health minister in mid-February amid the world crisis over the deadly COVID-19 virus to replace Macron’s candidate. Clearly pitching for votes from the conservative camp, she too wants armed municipal police for the capital she grew up in, along with clean streets.
Most of the five other candidates have cameo roles — but could prove crucial to forming alliances ahead of the March 22 second round — or the so-called third round when newly elected city councilors choose the new Paris mayor who ultimately is indirectly elected.
Taking Paris would be a big symbolic win that would save Macron’s honor, and his chance to convince the population at large that his party, made up mainly of citizens without political experience, wasn’t a fluke.
Macron took nearly 35% of the Paris vote in the 2017 presidential election.
“The sociology of Paris is very favorable to President Macron. He should be winning Paris,” said political scientist Dominique Moisi, referring to the Paris of today, mainly educated and open-minded residents with comfortable incomes. “But it’s far from clear today that such will be the case, given the fact that he chose early on the wrong candidate.”
Buzyn was named a candidate on Feb. 16, two days after Benjamin Griveaux pulled out of the race. Griveaux, former government spokesman, abruptly announced his departure after a graphic sex video began circulating online.
Enter the Russian performance artist, Piotr Pavlensky, who said he had posted the video, surreptitiously obtained, to denounce the “hypocrisy” of Griveaux for promoting family values in the campaign. The response across the political spectrum, including from rival mayoral candidates, was solidarity with Griveaux.
Buzyn politely dropped Griveaux’s grand plan to move a major Paris train station to make way for a New York-style Central Park in the French capital, but quickly became a feisty contender.
“This city was neglected. This city was mismanaged. Madame Hidalgo degraded the quality of life in Paris,” Buzyn said in an interview with the daily 20 Minutes. “Paris must again become the City of Light.”
Like Macron’s party, Dati’s conservative The Republicans party, is in free fall, hoping for a revival, just like the Socialists who tanked during the 2017 presidential election. Going into the race, only Hidalgo stands as a prominent flag-bearer for the Socialists.
“We will make this city one of mixed (incomes), enjoyable and breathable,” Hidalgo vowed during the debate, promising 550 million euros to clean up.
As for Griveaux, the dropout, he did leave a legacy despite his short-lived campaign: his proposal to rid Paris of bedbugs has become official with a government website to combat infestations.
PARIS – Three women have emerged as the top candidates in the race to become Paris mayor, all but ensuring that one of the world’s most prestigious civic offices will remain in female hands.
Sunday’s first round of municipal elections is also expected to test backing for President Emmanuel Macron’s ambitious reform agenda following a second winter of discontent marked by mass protests.
Polls show Macron’s Republic on the Move party struggling amid a furor over the government’s decision to force through unpopular pension reforms by decree.
The elections for more than 500,000 councilors and nearly 35,000 mayors also follow the yellow vest rebellion of 2018-2019, which lifted the lid on widespread anger in rural France against a leader who is seen by critics as the president of the rich.
A fresh setback after his party finished behind the far-right National Rally in last year’s European elections would show that “Macron’s magic powers are no longer that magic,” said Bruno Cautres, a researcher and lecturer at Sciences Po university in Paris.
In the race to govern the national capital, incumbent Anne Hidalgo, conservative Rachida Dati and centrist Agnes Buzyn could not be more different in temperament nor career paths, yet each embodies key components of the city’s social mosaic.Anne Hidalgo Anne Hidalgo | REUTERS
Paris’ Socialist leader has been at the helm since 2014, after serving as deputy mayor of the world’s most-visited city since 2001.
Hidalgo was born in 1959 in San Fernando, a town in Andalusia, Spain, to an electrician father and a mother who worked as a seamstress.
Two years later the family moved to Lyon in southeastern France — Ana became Anne and citizenship came when she was 14 years old.
“One day in second grade, my teacher told me, ‘Little Spanish girls don’t make it to the top of the class.’ That only made me want to take up the challenge,” she told the Parisien newspaper this month.
Her term as Paris mayor began with a baptism of fire — the 2015 jihadi attacks at the offices of the satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo and then the Bataclan concert hall, which shattered the city’s famed joie de vivre.
Hidalgo pushed ahead with her signature plan to reduce the use of automobiles in the city, including a controversial move to turn a key riverbank highway into a promenade.
Opponents accused her of a high-handed approach, a claim she brushes off by saying she wants to move quickly.
She has also suggested that sexism underlies much of the criticism.
“I don’t like people walking all over me. Certain things infuriate me, I can’t stand lying, but I am honest and forthright,” she told Le Parisien.
Challenges have mounted, however, as residents complain about increasingly dirty streets and a proliferation of rats, migrant camps and costs of living that are driving some 12,000 people out of Europe’s densest city each year.Rachida Dati | AFP-JIJIRachida Dati
Dati, who burst onto the national scene as justice minister under President Nicolas Sarkozy, was born in 1965 in the drab industrial town of Saint-Remy, north of Lyon, and raised in social housing in nearby Chalon-sur-Saone.
Daughter of a Moroccan father and Algerian mother, Dati’s success made her a poster child for France’s promise of integration and merit-based social opportunity for all.
The second of 11 children, she would help her siblings with homework while juggling her own studies and part-time jobs, including caregiver at a local hospital.
She racked up diplomas in law and business, and has worked as an auditor in both the private and public sectors, including the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, as well as a public prosecutor.
But Dati became a divisive figure in right-wing circles after becoming justice minister, with both allies and critics noting a blunt manner and self-assuredness of someone who has reached the highest ranks by sheer force of will.
She is currently the focus of a corruption inquiry over allegations she was paid €900,000 ($1 million) by the disgraced former Renault boss Carlos Ghosn for fictitious advisory work. She has denied the charges.Agnes Buzyn | AFP-JIJIAgnes Buzyn
A born-and-bred Parisian, Buzyn was a successful doctor who suddenly entered politics when she was picked as health minister after Emmanuel Macron swept to the presidency in 2017.
Her maternal grandparents came to the city from Poland in 1929, and during the Nazi German occupation of World War II they spirited her mother away to eastern France, where she was hidden by a French family.
Her father, who is also from Poland, survived Auschwitz and became an orthopedic surgeon before arriving in France in the 1950s.
As a student, she traveled to the U.S., where, she says, “I discovered hard rock. … I’m a fan of Linkin Park, Metallica.”
The leukemia specialist was just 30 when named director of hematology at the renowned Necker hospital, and later became head of the national cancer institute.
Since entering government she has faced a simmering revolt among overstretched hospital workers, and is now facing her first electoral battle after declaring her last-minute candidacy as replacement for Benjamin Griveaux, brought down by a sex-video scandal.
“Politics is violent and at times painful, but when you’ve had to give horrible diagnoses to families, to children, it’s really much less serious,” she said last month.
France's municipal elections saw record-low turnout on Sunday as coronavirus fears kept millions of voters from polling stations, prompting calls to cancel the second round of voting as authorities scramble to curtail the outbreak.
Polling institutes estimated the abstention rate at 54 to 56 percent, nearly 20 points higher than the previous record set in municipal votes six years ago.
Officials have insisted that voting will take place under the tightest sanitary conditions Photo: AFP / Fred TANNEAU
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, who was also running for mayor of the Normandy port city of Le Havre, said he would consult with scientific experts this week on whether to maintain the second round next Sunday.
"The high abstention rate illustrates the growing worries of our fellow citizens about this crisis," Philippe said in a televised address, as estimates put him ahead in his mayor race.
Macron's party has lost popularity since the 2017 presidential election Photo: AFP / Ludovic Marin
The voting came just hours after the government ordered all bars, restaurants and other non-essential businesses to close, with many people expecting a more complete lockdown keeping people in their homes could come within days.
France recorded 36 more coronavirus deaths Sunday, the biggest one-day increase in the country since the outbreak, taking the total death toll to 127 deaths and 5,423 cases of infection since January, the national health agency said Sunday.
Landmarks such as the Palace of Versailles have been closed Photo: AFP / Philippe LOPEZ
The government had rejected calls to cancel the first round, saying sufficient precautions were taken to disinfect polling stations in what was seen as a key test of President Emmanuel Macron's popularity.
"It is important to vote in these times," Macron said after washing his hands with sanitising gel and casting his ballot in northern France.
But calling off the second round now would likely require a rerun of the first round as well, constitutional law experts say.
France went to the polls, defying the mounting health crisis caused by the coronavirus outbreak Photo: AFP / Eric CABANIS
National results have yet to be declared, though Macron's centrist Republic on the Move party had not been expected to make strong showings in the fight for the country's 35,000 mayor seats.
Officials have insisted that voting will take place under the tightest sanitary conditions Photo: AFP / Fred TANNEAU
In Paris, where incumbent Mayor Anne Hidalgo was in front with around 30 percent of votes according to estimates, streets were eerily empty as its cafes and restaurants stayed dark.
For voters who did turn out to vote, bottles of hand sanitiser were ubiquitous and floors were marked with tape to keep people one metre (3.3 feet) from one another.
"There is no one here, and the risk is low," Bernard Gallis, 66, said after voting in Aulnay-sous-Bois, outside Paris.
But he admitted his children, aged 40, 36, and 32, had decided not to vote because of the risk of contagion.
France has indefinitely closed creches, nursery schools, schools and universities, banned gatherings of more than 100 people, and urged residents to limit their movements in a bid to curtail the spread of the virus.
Cinemas, libraries, shopping centres and gyms have also been ordered shut until April 15 in a bid to prevent hospitals becoming overrun with sick people. Food stores and pharmacies remain open.
On Sunday, the government also said long-distance trains and international flights will be limited and public transport reduced.
Museums, theatres and tourists sites such as the Eiffel Tower have already closed, and Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet said courthouses would close starting Monday for all but "essential litigation."
Political leaders from across the spectrum said holding the second round now appeared impossible -- Christian Jacob, head of the rightwing Republicans party, revealed Sunday that he had tested positive for the new coronavirus.
The clampdown had already prompted candidates to cancel or curtail their post-voting rallies or news conferences, telling supporters to stay home in line with government orders.
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