Paris Vote on First Female Mayor Turns Into Mudslinging Race

For all the mudslinging, corruption charges, lawsuits and Twitter spats in the battle to be Paris’s next mayor, one thing is settled: It will be a woman.

For the first time since the French capital named chiefs in the 13th century, all the main candidates in the 2014 race for the city’s top spot are women.

“They’re fighting for the prize,” said Sandrine Leveque, a political science professor at Sorbonne University in Paris and author of an article in a book entitled “Sex, Gender and Politics.” “A woman at the head of Paris is a symbol, it’s a face, an image.”

Paris, with 2.3 million inhabitants, will become one of only a handful of the world’s major cities to have a female at the helm. Tokyo, London, Berlin and Rio de Janeiro have never had one, while Madrid is led by Ana Botella and Washington and Sao Paulo have had women mayors in the 1990s. New York may be next with City Council Speaker Christine Quinn a candidate to take over from Mayor Michael Bloomberg -- the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.

Winning Paris is a trophy for any political party, with the mayor running what is a state within the French state -- an 8 billion-euro ($10.5 billion) budget, the ability to raise local taxes and more than 50,000 employees in a city that’s home to 60,000 companies. With Mayor Bertrand Delanoe -- completing his second and final term -- the Socialist Party has the prize. Holding on to it is a test for President Francois Hollande.

“If the Socialists were to lose Paris, it would be a scar on Hollande’s presidency,” said Eric Bonnet, a political analyst at pollster BVA in Paris. “Paris is the heart of French power. It’s where the country boils. The intelligentsia, the economic leaders are there. It’s where Revolutions start.”

‘Pure Politics’

The five women at the top of the Paris fray kicked off their battle last month with a cacophony of public spats, including a charge of corruption and a defamation lawsuit. The candidates have tried to outdo each other on the number of Twitter messages they’ve sent to support Paris Saint-Germain, the city’s soccer team.

“It’s pure politics,” said Leveque. “It’s a mud fight, but it is political mud.”

The candidates include the outgoing Socialist mayor’s deputy Anne Hidalgo and two ex-ministers from Former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement party, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet and Rachida Dati. Also running are Marielle de Sarnez from the Democratic Movement and Cecile Duflot of the Green Party, an ally of the Socialists.

Two-Legged Race

A March 31 BVA poll shows the emergence of a race mainly between Hidalgo, 53, and 39-year-old Kosciusko-Morizet, or NKM as she is known. Although the poll shows Hidalgo winning 51 percent of the vote to NKM’s 49 percent, the outcome may be too close to call. That’s even after Hollande won 55.6 percent of the Paris vote in the May presidential vote.

“Hidalgo will struggle in months to come with two things: she may be seen as just a repetition of Delanoe with nothing new to offer,” Bonnet said. “And she will pay for the Socialist Party’s recent corruption scandals.”

Hollande’s government was dealt a blow this month after the minister he’d charged with fighting tax evasion admitted to a secret overseas bank account. The scandal, France’s economic slump and near-record joblessness have resulted in Hollande plumbing new lows in the polls.

The tight mayoral race has turned it into a slanging match. NKM is fighting off an upper-class image -- she failed in a television interview last year to correctly say what a subway ticket in Paris costs. She also has a challenger from her own party in Dati.

French Microcosm

Socialist candidate Hidalgo, the daughter of Spanish immigrants, was accused of corruption by NKM, prompting a defamation suit last week. Hiladgo, too, has a spoiler in Duflot, a minister in Hollande’s government.

The Paris mayoral job is the second-most high-profile political post in France after the president. In the past, it has provided a springboard to the Elysee presidential palace -- Jacques Chirac was Paris mayor between 1977 and 1995 before becoming president. The city is a microcosm of France, with its own military command, more than 45 million annual visitors and more monuments than any other metropolis in the world.

When heads of state visit France, they drop in on the mayor of Paris. As mayor, Chirac hosted Saddam Hussein, Bill Clinton and Queen Elizabeth at City Hall.

Task Ahead

The new mayor will take over from Delanoe, who’s had the job since 2001 and briefly contemplated running for president in 2012. His initiatives include a bike-rental system called Velib’, “Paris Plage,” a month-long summer beach along the banks of the Seine River and “La Nuit Blanche,” an all-night event featuring cultural happenings across the city.

The campaign for the March 2014 vote will force candidates to come up with proposals to avoid raising taxes and rents, ease transport bottlenecks in the city and help the police maintain security. The new mayor will need to find ways to get the working classes to stay -- as rising living costs threaten to drive them away -- while keeping Paris’s place as a global city.

Paris relies increasingly on its suburbs for growth. Yet getting to the capital’s suburbs is often hard since the public transport network is sketchy, travelers are stuck in traffic for hours and their ride can take them through crime-infested neighborhoods with insufficient public housing.

‘Three Qualities’

Hidalgo promises a ring of skyscrapers around the city. NKM pledges to be the champion of the 30 billion-euro state transportation project, dubbed “Le Grand Paris,” initiated by her political mentor, Sarkozy.

Hidalgo supports a law allowing gay marriage and adoption - - a key element for Paris’s large homosexual population -- while NKM, whose UMP party has been a vocal opponent, has been coy.

“To be Paris mayor today you need three qualities: be environmentally conscious, to have liberal views and to have a solution for housing,” BVA’s Bonnet said. “That’s what Parisians are concerned about and that’s what they talk about.”

The dominance of female candidates in the race to head Paris mirrors gains made by women in other walks of French life.

“This election, and the general situation, shows that women are getting better play in France,” BVA’s Bonnet said. “While we are still very far from equality, being a woman is no longer an obstacle.”

Women’s March

Women make up half of Hollande’s government, compared with 29 percent under Sarkozy. Although they hold only 27 percent of the 577 seats in the National Assembly, they gained 8.4 percentage points in the number of seats in last year’s legislative elections.

France’s biggest companies last year overtook the U.S. with the highest proportion of women on boards of directors. A quarter of board members in France are women compared with 20 percent in the U.S., according to a January 2013 survey by the Corporate Women Directors International.

“If Paris is the only big French city to have a female mayor in 2014, it will be a drop in the ocean,” said Bruno Cautres, a political analyst at the Paris Institute of Political Sciences. “In politics, there is an improvement, but we shouldn’t be jumping up and down.”

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