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26 March 2001

The end of Paris as we love it?

To take the French capital, the left had to strike a deal with the Greens. The price may be the loss

By David Lawday

We all know Paris – that ineffably charming city of cafes and nice-looking girls, the essence of what the French do best in life. It would be a sin to change it, wouldn’t it? In principle, the French capital’s choice of a left-wing mayor in municipal elections on 18 March may squeeze out the corruption that clings beneath its charm. But I spot a danger here for us Paris lovers.

The right was seemingly in charge of Paris for ever. To be exact, it isn’t the left that has won the election, but the right that has lost it by an incredible act of self-destruction. The French capital is an older hand than London at electing a governing mayor. It was close to 25 years ago that a jealous French state first allowed Paris to take its political fate more or less into its own hands. Through all those years, Jacques Chirac, now president of France, and his hangers-on maintained conservative rule with ease. The Chirac machine long held all 20 arrondissements (boroughs), a grand slam made possible by the gradual postwar banishment of the Edith Piaf blue-collar class beyond the city boundaries to the eastern suburbs.

Bertrand Delanoe (who declared himself gay on television well before the campaign) captured bourgeois Paris for the left because two grander Socialists stood down as candidates, one paying the price for some financial slipperiness, the other stepping into a key ministerial post.

The nationwide municipal elections saw large gains by the conservatives in provincial cities. But the right’s customary rule over Paris was broken by a vicious rift between its official candidate, the moody Philippe Seguin, and the outgoing mayor, Jean Tiberi, Chirac’s successor and erstwhile fixer. Dogged by allegations of vote-rigging and major fiddles on municipal contracts dating from Chirac’s mayoral reign, poor Tiberi came to be considered a liability as mayor by his supposed friends, Chirac included. But the more the mainstream right sought to dispose of him, the more defiant Tiberi became about staying on, protecting himself with the implied threat that he could expose Chirac himself at any time.

Thus Seguin, a thickset neo-Gaullist grandee given to excessive pride and bewildering changes of mind, found himself battling harder against Tiberi than against Delanoe. His campaign promise to clean out the “Chirac system” sounded hollow, coming from one so politically attached to the president. Besides, as a heavyweight parachuted in from the outside to save the game for the right, he never convinced a soul that he was truly interested in Paris, where Delanoe has toiled in dedicated opposition for two decades. Seguin claimed, lamely, that he would have won if the election had been a straight popular vote for mayor and not a borough-by-borough poll. The right did win a fraction more votes overall. But under different rules, loyal Tiberists would hardly have spent their vote on Seguin.

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The result went to Delanoe by 12 boroughs to eight – a straight divide between well-heeled, stuffier western Paris and the livelier, younger, more liberal east (the site of the Bastille) with its run-down pockets of immigrants. Delanoe, for one, knew the value of teamwork. Watching the Greens run up a remarkable 12.5 per cent score in a first round of voting a fortnight before the run-off, he negotiated a coalition that allowed him to clean up in the east and push the city’s political dividing line into conservative strongholds of the past. The merger is logical enough. Socialists and Greens are united nationally in Prime Minister Lionel Jospin’s government of the “plural left”.

Now, however, comes the payoff that could thwart us Paris lovers. No disrespect to the Greens, but I fear they may not grasp what it is that makes Paris so attractive. Encircling the city with a seamless new tramline to knock out the regular traffic shows ambition, and Delanoe has bought into this Green project. So much for his plans for the perimeter.

But Green ideas stretch further: to guillotining traffic from the centre, from places where the spirit of Paris pulses – from the spacious Place de la Concorde at its heart, from the vibrant boulevards. And who will keep Green hands off the stirring merry-go-round at the Arc de Triomphe? Or the Champs-Elysees? Bicycle lanes where no cyclist dares ride already cramp the inner city. A lot of the places that the Greens seek to discipline are those where sitting out in a cafe is agreeable precisely because of the indiscipline on view. Rob Paris of its style and buzz, and you end up with Washington DC plus fashion extras.

Delanoe has promised little, beyond using his undoubted “Parisian commitment” to improve schools, kindergartens, run-down buildings, job parity for women and immigrant conditions, plus run a swift financial audit on past corruption.

But he will not, he says, “rummage in the right’s rubbish bins”. There will be no rattle of tumbrils. He inherits a public transport system of buses, underground Metro and express subways, reaching deep into the outskirts of Paris, that no other capital can match (and for which the state retains overall responsibility). Paris is clean. One triumph of Chirac as mayor was to introduce an inventive fleet of street-sweeping contraptions that sensible rival cities have since copied. Paris is also green – it must have more trees than Sherwood Forest.

This is nice for most Parisians. But the Greens can now expect to go a lot further. In the new 163-member Paris Council (the city parliament), the Delanoe majority stemming from the alliance includes virtually one Green for every two Socialists. That means relentless Green pressure. May the new mayor remember that Paris, being the most visited city on earth, is everyone’s business. It can do without a lobotomy.

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