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29 June 2020updated 27 Aug 2021 9:44pm

How Anne Hidalgo’s anti-car policies won her re-election in Paris

The environmentalist mayor’s shrewd political calculation is unique to the French capital.

By Ido Vock

Anne Hidalgo has handily won the delayed second round of the Paris mayoral elections, granting her a renewed mandate to continue her work of closing swathes of the city to private cars and vastly expanding cycling provision – the principal issue of the bitterly fought campaign.

The incumbent won just under half of the votes cast in the capital during the 28 June vote, about 20 per cent ahead of her closest challenger, Rachida Dati, in a good night for Green-backed mayoral candidates across France. The victory clears the way for Hidalgo to achieve her goal of making Paris the first large, mostly car-free city by the end of her second term.

As I have written before for the New Statesman’s sister site CityMetric, since Hidalgo’s election as mayor in 2014 she has made the case for reallocating road space away from cars towards pedestrians and cyclists more forcefully than any other mayor of a big city. The coronavirus pandemic has added new urgency to her crusade against private vehicles. She responded to the demands of the disease – particularly the mathematical reality that public transport will run far below capacity for the foreseeable future – with familiar determination: promptly banning most motor traffic from the Rue de Rivoli, the arterial road running through central Paris, and adding a further 50km of protected cycle lanes on avenues and boulevards.

Hidalgo is certainly ambitious, but she owes her re-election to a shrewd political calculation. She is elected solely by the two million residents of Paris proper, rather than the metropolitan area ringing the capital, home to between seven million and 13 million souls, depending on how you count. Her position, as the leader of the dense urban core of a larger metropolitan area, has allowed her to be bolder in confronting the private car than administrations elected in conurbations whose electorates stretch out to the suburbs, where voters are more likely to own cars. For instance, in London, about 54 per cent of households own at least one car, largely because of outer London boroughs such as Hillingdon, where three quarters are car owners. In Paris, the figure is 34 per cent.

The Spanish-born mayor’s bet was that she could largely afford to disregard voters who own a car and appeal instead to the two thirds who do not, a substantial built-in majority. Her opponents’ pleas for her to moderate her war against the private vehicle, by definition, could only speak to a small minority of voters. Some of her challengers argued that her anti-car policies discriminate against residents of the suburbs; a form of bourgeois class war against residents of the downtrodden banlieues. Whether the argument is correct is beside the point: it had only limited salience in the mayoral election because it is not directly applicable to most voters.

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The bet paid off. In the 10th arrondissement of Paris, where under a quarter of households own cars, a full 68 per cent of votes cast went to the mayor. In contrast, Hidalgo’s unpopularity among car owners is reflected in the share of the vote she received in the parts of Paris that have the highest car ownership. In the prim 16th, where half of households own cars, she did not even make it to the second round.

The Socialist mayor further solidified her position by unifying the left, an atypical phenomenon in French elections. Hidalgo’s impeccable ecological credentials appealed to the Greens, while her agenda of expanding the provision of council housing and curtailing Airbnb led to the usually acrimoniously split left-wing parties backing her. The centre-right vote, by contrast, was divided between Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche and the right-wing Republicans.

Environmentalist candidates had a good night all around France, snapping up the mayoralties of a slew of big cities including Bordeaux and Lyon. The growing strength of the Greens points to a thorny challenge for Macron, who is conscious that his own path to re-election in two years’ time depends on appealing to the increasingly weighty environmentalist vote.

Hidalgo is typical of progressive mayors around the world who are closing roads to polluting traffic and rebalancing the distribution of public space towards pedestrians and cyclists. But her re-election is notable for three reasons. First, the scale and ambition of her plans to eliminate most private vehicles from Paris. Second, the cinching of the single biggest prize in the local elections by a Green-backed candidate, foreshadowing a key theme of the 2022 presidential elections. Finally, the fact that Hidalgo is only able to be as ambitious as she is because of her unique position as the mayor of a world city, accountable to an electorate representing only a fraction of the residents of the larger Paris area.

The admiring residents of other big cities such as London, who wish their mayors could pursue similarly bold plans, will likely remain disappointed for some time.