Will a black American president shake hands one day with a gay president of France? Barack Obama has already taken strides towards reversing the conventional, racial wisdom of US politics. Bertrand Delanoë, the popular, successful, gruff, acerbic – and gay – Mayor of Paris took his first step yesterday on a four-year obstacle course which could, in theory, take him to the Elysée Palace in 2012.
In the introduction to a book of interviews, outlining a market-oriented and even Blairist future for Socialism in France, M. Delanoë hinted strongly that he would run for the leadership of the Parti Socialiste in November and probably seek the party's presidential nomination in four years' time. He was ready, he said, to "invest my convictions and energy in my country" if "democracy and the Socialist Party call on me... to act".
In a brief reference to his sexual orientation, M. Delanoë rejected the view – often voiced in the provinces but a taboo subject for the Paris media – that La France profonde is not ready to elect a homosexual as president of the republic. "People say that homosexuality is acceptable in Paris but not in the suburbs or in the provinces but that's a false idea," he said. "So long as people feel that it is not a problem for me, then it's not a problem for them."
When they discuss M. Delanoë's prospects, national newspapers avoid this subject, to the point of absurdity. Blogs and chat-rooms on the internet are less cautious. A typical contributor yesterday said that M. Delanoë was "poking himself in the eye" if he ignored the rampant homophobia, among both right-wing and left-wing voters, in the French provinces.
Opinion polls paint a much more encouraging picture for M. Delanoë. A survey this month for the magazine Le Point said that 57 per cent of French people thought that the Mayor of Paris would make a good president, compared to only 28 per cent for Ségolène Royal, the failed Socialist candidate last year.
The reliability of polls four years before the next election is open to doubt. All the same, the findings and M. Delanoë's approaching book launch, panicked Mme Royal into an early declaration of her own interest in the Socialist Party leadership last weekend.
Although other candidates exist, the struggle to be the Next Big Thing on the French left looks likely to be a two-horse race between M. Delanoë, 58, and Mme Royal, 54.
Since he was elected Mayor of Paris in 2001 (and re-elected earlier this year), M. Delanoë has established himself as a competent, inventive politician, capable of bridging the ideological gulf in France between socialist ideals and market realities. A typical Delanoë initiative – the Vélib help-yourself bicycles for hire scheme – is cheap to users, funded by a private company in return for advertising space and provides revenue to the town hall.
In a book of interviews with the editor of Libération, Laurent Joffrin, published yesterday, M. Delanoë promises to bring the same kind of pragmatic, market-oriented socialist politics to the whole country.
The word "liberal" – in the sense of free-market economics – should not be shunned by the French left but reclaimed as a left-wing concept, M. Delanoë said. Social democracy should be about ideals and aims and "good management", he said, not about anti-capitalist ideology.
The Mayor even went as far as to say that the former British prime minister Tony Blair – a figure of hatred and scorn on the French left – had achieved "excellent things".
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