In 2015, Anne Hidalgo, the recently elected mayor of Paris, addressed a scathing letter to France’s then economy minister. Protesting against plans to partially exempt some shops from the country’s strict Sunday trading ban, it denounced “the fantasy of a city entirely dedicated to consumerist tourism”. The object of her ire was an ambitious reformer named Emmanuel Macron, appointed to the role by President François Hollande the year before. The spat was an early manifestation of one of the defining rivalries of French politics, between Hidalgo’s leftish urbanism and the business-friendly reformism that would in 2017 take Macron to his presidential win.
Now over seven years into her mayoralty, Hidalgo is well known for the distinctive brand of politics that she has pioneered in Paris. Fusing social-democratic economic policies with a strong focus on urban environmentalism, it rests on an equally distinctive electoral coalition drawing on Greens and Communists as well as her own party, the Socialists (PS), from which she has cultivated a certain distance. Within a French centre left yet to recover from a crushing defeat in 2017, she is widely viewed as a possible candidate for the presidential election due in April 2022.
She has not yet declared her candidacy, and her path to victory would be narrow, but many consider her the best hope of a progressive challenge to Macron – who has governed some way to the right of where he campaigned in 2017. That raises some big and important questions of what one might call Hidalgo-ism. Is it confined to the municipal politics of France’s large, cosmopolitan centres? Or can it be adapted to French national politics? Can it even help the European left, often struggling and almost ubiquitously in flux, find a new way to win elections again?
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Ana María Hidalgo was born in 1959 to Antonio and Maria Hidalgo in San Fernando, near Cádiz in southern Spain. Her grandfather had been condemned to death under the Franco regime for his supposed Republican sympathies, but managed to evade execution several times. His son, Antonio, was for a time raised by nuns tasked with re-educating the offspring of those deemed politically unreliable.
The family emigrated to France when Ana was two. France was a much richer country than Francoist Spain, offering better opportunities. But its democratic politics also suited the Hidalgo family better. They settled in a working-class neighbourhood of Lyon, where Antonio, an electrical engineer, found work in a factory. Her father’s trade unionism and the family’s background would, over time, help shape Hidalgo’s left-liberal politics.
At 14, along with the rest of her family, Hidalgo became a naturalised French citizen (which under Spanish law at the time meant she had to give up her Spanish nationality). “Under Franco, it was like that,” she later recalled. By now fluent in French, she took to spelling her name the Gallic way, “Anne”. But her family never cut its links with their native country, only General Franco’s regime. After Spain’s transition to democracy, her parents moved back to San Fernando. Even as she rose through the ranks of the French civil service, she chose to once again become Spanish in 2003 and remains a French-Spanish dual national.
Anne Hidalgo at the International Olympic Committee ceremony where Paris was announced as the host city for the 2024 Games. (Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
After her studies, in 1982 Hidalgo became one of the few women to pass the tough exams to become a labour inspector – a civil servant who ensures that labour law is correctly applied by employers. The work suited her left-wing sympathies. But it would be close to a decade and a half before she got her start in politics.
In April 1997, Jacques Chirac, France’s centre-right president, called new elections for the Assemblée Nationale, France’s parliament, intending to strengthen his majority for promised reforms. The bet backfired. Subsequent elections for the new assembly returned a left-wing majority in parliament. The episode led to France’s third so-called “cohabitation”, when the president and prime minister hail from opposing parties.
Lionel Jospin, the new PS prime minister, named Martine Aubry, an experienced left-winger, as minister of employment and social solidarity. Aubry, one of the most powerful figures in government, oversaw a swathe of worker-friendly labour market reforms, most notably the introduction of the 35-hour working week. Among the flurry of new aides Aubry hired to help implement the changes was the civil servant Hidalgo, who had by then been a member of the PS for three years.
At that time the employment ministry under Aubry was viewed within the government as a left-wing counterbalance to the more pro-business finance ministry, led by Dominique Strauss-Khan (who would go on to head the International Monetary Fund before resigning over allegations of sexual assault). Yet Hidalgo developed an ability to reach across divides on the left, including that between the two ministries.
“It’s funny that now she has an image as a pretty hard-left figure, because at the time she came from the pro-business wing of the PS. Not exactly New Labour, but more open to business than the traditional party apparatus,” one of her colleagues from the era told me: “This was a coalition government which depended on the support of the Communists and the Greens – but also of companies.”
Hidalgo quickly formed a tight bond with her boss partly built, her colleagues recalled, on a pugnaciousness shared between two women working in the male-dominated environment of left-wing politics. One of her civil service colleagues was Jean-Marc Germain, seven years Hidalgo’s junior, whom she married in 2004.
After a few years in government, Hidalgo the policy expert began taking more of an interest in partisan politics. In 2001, she was appointed deputy mayor of Paris under Bertrand Delanoë, who had just won the mayoralty for the left for the first time since the Paris Commune in 1871. As deputy mayor, she took responsibility for town planning and was closely associated with Delanoë’s own greenish measures to improve urban quality of life. When, the following year, Delanoë was stabbed by a mentally ill man, Hidalgo took over his functions for a few months while he convalesced.
That helped propel her rise through Parisian politics, as she continued to develop a reputation as a moderate able to draw together different elements of the left. In 2004, she was elected to the council of the Île-de-France, the region comprised of the Paris conurbation, on a broad left slate that brought together the PS, social liberals, left-wing nationalists and Greens. In 2006, as the party chose its candidate for the following year’s presidential election –where it was clear Chirac would likely stand down, with the energetic interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy the front-runner for the centre-right candidacy – she backed the economically liberal Strauss-Kahn while remaining close to the more progressive Delanoë.
In 2012, with Delanoë due to stand down, Hidalgo announced that she would stand for mayoral elections due in 2014. She mounted a charm operation to turn her opponents within the party into allies. “She built her edifice brick by brick, and one day we woke up and it was done,” one Parisian PS heavyweight observed in 2014. “She surprised us with her capability.”
Hidalgo started out at a distinct disadvantage to her centre-right opponent Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, known as NKM, a Sarkozyite former minister. François Hollande, the PS president elected in 2012, was well on his way to becoming the most unpopular tenant of the Élysée Palace in history. By March 2014, just a quarter of voters had a positive opinion of him. Some observers expected NKM’s criticisms of the national government, combined with fatigue towards the PS in city hall after 13 years of Delanoë, would defeat Hidalgo.
When the elections came, NKM’s party held a small lead in the first round, but Hidalgo’s alliance-building, with the Green Party backing her in the second round, paid off. She won the run-off by close to 10 per cent and was elected the first female mayor of Paris. She had been granted a mandate for her agenda of curbing the transformation, as she saw it, of Paris into a museum-city run for the benefit of tourists and investors rather than locals. Central to her agenda was the creation of a “Greater Paris” by amalgamating the core 20 arrondissements that elected her with some of their surrounding suburbs.
She closed the Right Bank of the Seine to motor traffic, turning what had previously been a clogged urban motorway into a waterside promenade. Against vociferous opposition, she set about building a network of protected cycle lanes criss-crossing Paris. She openly declared that she would oversee the end of the private vehicle, which she blamed for toxic air and climate change, infuriating car-owners. It didn’t matter: they make up only a small minority of Parisian households and their outrage had little effect. Thanks in no small measure to Hidalgo, Paris today stands as an international example that, with determined leadership, even big world cities can begin to look like Amsterdam or Copenhagen.
High-profile terrorist attacks in January and November 2015 further raised Hidalgo’s profile as a national politician. She represented the city in which the attacks had taken place alongside national leaders, mourning what she characterised as assaults on French liberty and democracy.
Hidalgo with then French president François Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls during a 2016 ceremony paying tribute to the victims of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack. (Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images)
A highlight of Hidalgo’s first term was overseeing a bid for Paris to host the 2024 Summer Olympics. The plan, of which she was initially sceptical, finally won her blessing and was selected by the International Olympic Committee in 2017. In this she succeeded where her erstwhile mentor Delanoë had not: previous bids for Paris to host the 2008 and 2012 Olympics had been lost to Beijing and then London.
The Paris games will help secure her legacy, as well as advancing her Greater Paris agenda. Much of the new infrastructure, including the Olympic Village, will be built in Saint-Denis, a city bordering Paris located within an eponymous département that is the poorest in mainland France. Much as the 2012 Olympics regenerated some of the most deprived parts of east London, the hope in the Paris administration is that the 2024 games will bring wealth and jobs to Saint-Denis – helping detoxify an oft-stigmatised area.
It has also not escaped notice that the 2012 Olympics secured a global reputation for the mayor of London at the time, a certain Boris Johnson. “Mayor of Paris is a very good springboard for national politics,” as her former colleague puts it.
As Hidalgo was changing the face of the French capital, Macron was changing that of the country’s politics. The man with whom she had sparred over his business-friendly reforms under Hollande subsequently resigned from the government, founded a new centrist party, En Marche!, and in 2017 succeeded Hollande as president. The PS crumbled, its candidate Benoît Hamon securing just 6 per cent of the vote in the first round. The party’s financial difficulties forced it to sell its historic headquarters on the Rue de Solférino; a powerful symbol of demise.
The PS’s woes probably contributed to Hidalgo’s emergence as a distinct, more heterodox political brand. Ahead of her re-election campaign in March 2020, she distanced herself from the party and concentrated on her own personal vote and her broad political alliance, Paris in Common, which united the PS, Greens and Communists. “She has taken on the idea that Green politics are very important and integrated that strongly into her programme,” Hugo Drochon, a political theorist at the university of Nottingham, told me.
Cyclists on one of the new cycle lanes installed by the Hidalgo administration (Kiran Ridley/Getty Images)
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit France, Hidalgo argued that the crisis was an opportunity to further reshape the capital. She installed pop-up cycle lanes around the city, arguing that to enable social distancing on public transport and avoid demand for travel being transferred to cars, more people needed to walk and cycle. The Rue de Rivoli was closed to most motor traffic, turning one of the most recognisable streets in Paris into a symbol of her determination to make it the world’s first large, mostly car-free city. She now plans to ban through traffic from a swathe of central Paris – a sort of low-traffic neighbourhood for the core of the city.
She adopted the concept of the “15 minute city” from the academic Carlos Moreno, arguing that Parisians’ daily needs should all be available a short walk from their homes. Stations for the Grand Paris Express, a metro system slated to be Europe’s largest upon completion, are currently under construction. The 200km of new metro lines, scheduled to open fully by 2030, will help link the city proper with its suburbs, in a significant step towards integrating Paris and its periphery.
The second round of the French municipal elections last year, including in Paris, was delayed by the pandemic. When it went ahead, on 28 June, Hidalgo was one of a number of Green-backed candidates to win the mayoralties of large cities, including Bordeaux, Marseille and her native Lyon. This was a minor political earthquake and a reminder that despite Macron’s political pre-eminence, some of the centre-left voters who helped him to the presidency in the 2017 were now turning to other political families.
Rumours abound in Paris about whether Hidalgo will run for president next year. She would not be the first mayor of Paris to use the role to enter national politics: Chirac resigned as mayor the day before he was sworn in as French president in 1995. And although she denied having any designs on national politics during last year’s mayoral election, she has since established a platform to collect suggestions for what her policies should include.
The odds are stacked against her. France’s presidential elections take place in two rounds, so first she would need to secure a large enough electoral coalition to reach the run-off. Her nominal party, the PS, is in the doldrums, polling in single figures and reduced to a national irrelevance. Any chance of her coming first or second in the first round would most likely require cooperation with various progressive parties, from the Greens (where a joint run modelled on Paris in Common is conceivable) to Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s far-left La France Insoumise (which has indicated that it would be less open to backing a PS candidate and sits in opposition on the Paris council).
Even then, success looks improbable. Macron is unpopular, but less so than his immediate predecessors. Polls show him winning a run-off round against far-right leader Marine Le Pen, while Hidalgo would lose. That could persuade some centre-left voters, however unenthusiastic they are about the incumbent, to vote Macron into the second round out of fear that a Hidalgo-Le Pen run-off would end badly. In any case, France’s lockdown rules are now being loosened as vaccinations finally gain pace: the president could benefit from a feel-good factor if the economy recovers in the second half of 2021 and early 2022.
More importantly, the issues for which Hidalgo is best known, such as her environmentalism and anti-car policies, may play less well in the country at large than in Paris. The gilets jaunes protests of 2017-18 were sparked by much more modest environmentalist policies (a fuel duty rise) than those Hidalgo has pushed as mayor. Across the country, 85 per cent of households own at least one car, compared to just 34 per cent in Paris.
“[Hidalgo’s politics] are very bourgeois bohemian, Parisian. They’re ecologically interested, but of course in a city, most can either get around on their bicycles or use public transportation,” Drochon said. “If you try to expand that beyond Paris, I don’t think it has that echo, which explains why she’s only at around 6 per cent in the [national] polls.”
One factor in her favour is that voters could be open to more radical environmentalism after the Cop26 climate conference, due to be held this November. And if a government including or led by the Green Party were to take office after the German federal election in September, which appears possible on current polls, some French voters might be persuaded that environmentalist politics, having moved from the fringes to the mainstream in Europe’s largest economy, should be tried at home too.
“The ecological and social questions Anne Hidalgo has championed are absolutely relevant on a national scale,” said Maya Akkari, a councillor for Paris in Common.
Alternatively, fearful of Le Pen and scarred by the pandemic, voters might decide that they prefer a known quantity and choose Macron or a candidate of the centre right. Hidalgo has not yet proven that her politics have nationwide appeal. But if she does run for president next year, it would not be the first time that she had bet against the prevailing wisdom.
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