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14 September 2021

How Anne Hidalgo’s presidential bid could further divide the French left

With as many as seven left-wing candidates for president, the mayor of Paris is entering a crowded field.

By Ido Vock

Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, confirmed on Sunday 12 September that she is running for the French presidency. The long-shot bid comes after months of speculation that the member of the Socialist Party (PS) would stand. As one of the pre-eminent figures of the green left, she is expected to easily win the nomination of the PS in closed primaries due later this month. If elected president, Spanish-born Hidalgo would be both France’s first foreign-born and first female head of state.

“The challenges facing us are immense,” Hidalgo said in her campaign announcement, citing the climate crisis, the pandemic and global conflicts. “The republican model is disintegrating in front of our eyes,” a reference to France’s social system.

Hidalgo has gained worldwide notoriety for openly proclaiming her desire to turn the Paris into the first large post-car city, installing miles of new bike lanes that have transformed the French capital’s streets. Yet whether she will be able to convince the public at large that she can be trusted to run the country is uncertain. 

Anti-car politics play well in Paris, where just a third of households own a private vehicle. She was comfortably re-elected to a second term in office last June, beating off challengers from the centre-right and President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist La République en Marche. But such a platform will be a much harder sell to the electorate at large (85 per cent of French households own a car).

“I have travelled the length of France… and listened to the French people,” she said at her campaign launch in the northern city of Rouen, attempting to show that she can be more than a representative of the capital. 

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Her announcement was peppered with promises of “reindustrialisation” and “humility”, and her flagship proposal is to double teacher salaries. The policy has been derided as unaffordable by her opponents, although it plays well to the PS’s traditional base of civil servants and teachers, according to Hugo Dronchon, a political theorist at the University of Nottingham.

More broadly, the PS, under whose label Hidalgo was first elected, is in the doldrums. It was decimated at the last election, the greatest casualty of Macron’s destruction of the traditional two-party system. Although the PS showed remarkable resilience during recent local elections, national politics are still dominated by the rivalry between Macron and the far-right leader Marine Le Pen. Breaking the duopoly will not be an easy task.

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Hidalgo is aware of the challenge facing her nominal party. Her 2020 re-election campaign saw her move away from the PS brand, creating the movement Paris in Common, which united Socialists, Greens and the Communist party. Nor does the website for her presidential bid, Ideas in Common, make any mention of the PS. Her Rouen announcement did not include the word “socialist” once.

Hidalgo will also face questions about whether her candidacy will serve as an unnecessary spoiler for the left. The broad left is deeply divided, with seven different candidates currently standing in the upcoming elections: left-winger Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the winners of the Green and PS primaries, François Hollande’s former minister Arnaud Montebourg, and three candidates of the hard left.

Any candidate of the broad left might have difficulty making it to the second round of voting, which sees a run-off between the top two candidates of the first round. Divisions on the left meant that no left-wing candidate reached the second round during the elections of 2002 and 2017.

Nor is division just a problem on the left. The right and far-right are also fractured between several candidates. The most controversial is the polarising polemicist Éric Zemmour, who was forced to quit his TV show because the national media regulator ruled that he was breaching broadcasting fairness rules as a politician, although he has not officially declared. If he runs, he is expected to peel a few percentage points off Le Pen’s first round score. (Zemmour has been convicted of hate speech multiple times.)

Macron is reportedly worried that a spoiler from Zemmour could cost Le Pen her place in the second round, resulting in a run-off against a figure of the centre-right, which he might lose.

The last election in 2017 saw four candidates poll between 24 and 19.5 per cent. Hidalgo’s long-shot candidacy is another indication that France’s political landscape is just as fractured and uncertain as it was four years ago.

[See also: Emmanuel Macron has been exposed as a false liberal idol]