Anne Hidalgo is the directly elected Mayor of a major capital city aspiring to the highest office in the land. We can all name the directly elected Mayor of a major capital city who aspired to the highest office in the land, or a standard-bearer of the Left struggling to unite their movement, let alone enthuse the wider electorate. However, we are not talking here about Boris Johnson or Keir Starmer. This is Anne Hidalgo, Mayor of Paris and official candidate of the Parti socialiste for the French presidential election in 2022.
On the face of it, this high-profile woman, issue de la diversité (of migrant heritage), might look like an attractive proposition to liberal or left-of-centre voters, including those disenchanted with Emmanuel Macron. However, her bid for the presidency is anything but a smooth ride. Some of the hurdles she faces, such as a divided, fractious Left and the siren calls of the populist Right, will be recognisable to British voters. Others, for example an electoral system which encourages multiple candidates, reflect the idiosyncrasies of French politics. In addition, her own tenure as Mayor of Paris hasn’t been without controversy.
A steady political ascension
Anne Hidalgo comes with impeccable Socialist credentials, being the granddaughter of a Spanish Republican who fled Franco’s Spain and was sentenced to life imprisonment on returning to his homeland. She grew up in Lyon and when she gave her recent speech announcing she was going to stand for president, she made a point of saying how much she loved La Duchère, the working-class neighbourhood she came from. She went on to university and then joined the civil service as a health and safety inspector, traditionally a seedbed for aspiring left-wing politicians. By 1997 she was cutting her political teeth as an adviser to Socialist ministers with portfolios for labour and for the rights of women.
Her next move was to seek an electoral mandate and her big break came when, having been elected councillor in the 15th arrondissment (district) of Paris, she was picked by Bertrand Delanoë, then Socialist Mayor of Paris, to become his First Deputy Mayor. He then put her in charge of gender equality. Some say this was because she appeared docile and compliant whereas others claim that it was because he had spotted her talent. Her colleague at the time, Mao Peninou, pointed out (Libération, 12 September 2021) out that even in a Socialist-held administration that had to be seen to strive for gender equality, misogyny was actually the norm at the time:
“There [wasn’t] much room for women. She had to fight.”
And fight she did. In 2002, when Bertrand Delanoë was seriously injured in a stabbing attack, she stepped up to the plate, taking command and firmly elbowing out of the way the old male guard who thought she couldn’t possibly be up to the top job. By 2014 Delanoë had retired and so Hidalgo was elected Mayor in her own right and also re-elected in 2020. And now Anne Hidalgo has been chosen as the Socialist Party candidate in the presidential race.
All things to all people?
Hidalgo describes herself as “a social-democrat, an ecologist, a feminist and a republican” offering a compassionate yet moderate message. It can be argued that she needs that reassuring profile to cast her net wide as she cannot afford to scare off too many sections of the electorate. The downside for her is that her position can look like fence-sitting and taking a deliberately vague position. How will she, for example, reconcile her promise to lower taxes on fuel (one of the demands of the grassroots gilets jaunes movement) with her green ambitions? And how can she offer to double (yes, double) teachers’ salaries within five years while aiming for budget responsibility, often seen as a weak point of the Left? She might now have pedalled back from that particular, un-costed proposal but it shows that, faced with an uphill struggle to win votes, she is sometimes tempted to go for a crowd-pleasing approach, with positions which are difficult to disagree with but lack sharpness or plausibility. Another example: her supporters in the party insist that there is no contradiction between economic growth, considered indispensable to improve the working classes’ standard of living, and a decrease in pollution, but this is often seen as wishful thinking.
These potential contradictions might not matter too much if there weren’t so many other candidates on the left – sometimes compared to a handful of confetti – clamouring for voters’ attention, pushing what might be more radical but better-defined messages and eroding the support for more traditional parties. The historical Socialist Party, which has endorsed Hidalgo, has been on the wane since François Hollande’s lacklustre presidency between 2012 and 2017, with many centrist and left-of-centre voters defecting to Macron’s En Marche movement. On the left alone there were seven other candidates at the time of writing, including Jean-Luc Mélenchon, known for his radical left-wing positions, and Yannick Jadot, representing the Greens. At this early stage, both are polling slightly better than Hidalgo. Ultimately, in a two-round voting system, French voters will have to choose their president from the two highest-polling candidates in the first round. The question is, how can a candidate from the left come second when faced with Emmanuel Macron’s incumbent advantage and Marine Le Pen’s populist rhetoric?
Paris: cleaner air but uglier city
In addition, Hidalgo’s own achievements are something of a mixed bag. She made much of her surprise re-election as Mayor in June 2020, coming first with nearly half of the ballots cast, but that was on a particularly low voter turnout. Her record as Mayor has attracted criticism and approval in equal parts. Yes, Paris’s successful bid to host the summer Olympics in 2024 has been a feather in her cap. On the other hand, her administration has been criticised for incompetent delivery of services as basic as rubbish collection, gleefully documented in a social media campaign, #saccageparis (trash Paris). The implementation of her environmental, car-hostile agenda for the city hasn’t been universally well received either. In her determination to make the city greener she has introduced measures which have had the effect of altering – some say disfiguring – well-known and much-loved cityscapes. Critics highlight graffiti-attracting concrete blocks displacing the classic wrought-iron benches, yellow concrete blocks marking newly created cycle lanes in Avenue de l’Opéra and elsewhere, unsightly mega-bins used to reduce parking spaces and so discourage driving as part of her Paris respire (Paris breathes) programme, and so on.
Smashing through the glass ceiling
There’s however no doubt that Anne Hidalgo’s career to date, as well as her bid for the presidency, constitute another step in the right direction for gender balance in top political jobs. In fact, in 2018, the Mairie de Paris administration was fined 90,000 euros for breaching a law on gender equality by appointing eleven women and five men as directors. When, following a public outcry, that penalty was eventually rescinded, Hidalgo defended the original selection, insisting that “If there isn’t the will and an unfailing determination, we won’t succeed in breaking through that glass ceiling” and adding “we have to force through far more opportunities for women to reach positions of responsibility”. Hidalgo, 2021.
Will pragmatism win?
Four months from the presidential election and, even with Hidalgo on the ticket, the figures don’t look good for the Parti Socialiste. The pragmatists on the left point out that, ideologically, there isn’t a wide gap between Yannick Jadot, leader of the Greens, and Anne Hidalgo, who both stand for social justice and ecology. However, at the 2017 presidential election, Jadot stood down in favour of the Socialist candidate at the time, Benoît Hamon, having agreed a common platform with him. This type of alliance is tricky but in the case of the Green Jadot and the Socialist Hamon, it was the result of weeks of intense negotiations after which Jadot agreed to withdraw from the presidential race in exchange for Hamon making various commitments to Green policies.
It is worth noting that the agreement had to be put to the vote and was approved by a majority of the 17,000 Green Party members before it came to pass. Disappointingly for both, Hamon was swept away by the Macron tsunami and only garnered a pitiful six percent of the votes. This time round, the Greens insist it is the Socialists’ turn to stand down because Jadot has a better chance of attracting the combined ‘social ecology’ vote. Again, given the general direction of travel of those two parties, the overlap between their respective policies, and the relatively low score they can both expect individually, an alliance makes sense, as long as each candidate could say, as Yannick Jadot did in 2017, “it is my responsibility to go beyond individual egos”.
The situation is rapidly unfolding, the latest news at the time of writing being that Anne Hidalgo has asked for a primary, in the hope that her candidacy would be legitimised by supporters of the left and the other hopefuls forced to put up or shut up. None of those candidates has accepted the challenge, though.
Anne Hidalgo, an intelligent, compassionate and determined woman, has the potential to be a breath of fresh air in French politics. However, the scenario in France and the UK is very similar: attractive though individual candidates may be, the only hope for a progressive government to be voted in lies in leaving egos behind and in forging alliances.