Mayor Anne Hidalgo shocks Paris with plan to redraw districts – but is it just a power grab?

Critics say Hidalgo is trying to creating a “giant boboland” where “bourgeois bohemians” would reign supreme

For 156 years Paris has resembled a snail. The city’s 20 arrondissements, or districts, curl outwards from the centre like the spiral of a snail’s shell. Paris resembles the gastronomic gastropod in another way. The French capital can sometimes be rather slow to move forward.

Given these facts, the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, has made what can be described as a courageous, and some might say shocking, proposal. She wants to smash the snail.

In a proposal which will be put to the Paris city council later this month, the Socialist Mayor suggests that the four most central arrondissements of Paris should be abolished and replaced by a single “sector”. The first, second, third and fourth arrondissements would survive only as postcodes. Their four mini-mayors and four mini-town halls would be replaced by one mini-mayor in a single not-so-mini-town hall.

There has been no change in the boundaries of the 20 Parisian arrondissements since 1860, Ms Hidalgo points out in an internal document leaked to Le Monde. Relatively few people – just over 100,000 – live in the four central arrondissements which occupy the area of the right bank of the original medieval city from Bastille to Concorde, plus the two islands in the Seine. 

Creating just one central arrondissement would save money, improve services and increase democratic representation, Ms Hidalgo suggests. The Paris arrondissements have limited autonomy but they do have their own administrative  offices and elaborate, gilded town halls.

Cue suspicion and outrage on the right. Jean-François Legaret, the centre-right mayor of the first arrondissement (including the Louvre, Notre Dame cathedral and Châtelet) accuses Ms Hidalgo of “electoral subterfuge”.

“What worries Parisians is cleanliness, safety, taxes, traffic and pollution,” he said, “Not one of them has ever said to me: ‘We must urgently redraw the map of the arrondissements.’”

Eric Azière, head of the centrist UDI-MoDem group on the city council, said: “Ms Hidalgo wants to create a giant ‘boboland’ which would be a bastion for the left in the 2020 municipal elections.”

The second, third and fourth arrondissements (covering the Marais, Bourse and Sentier areas) are amongst the favoured habitats of “bobos” or bourgeois bohemians – artistic and professional types who tend to vote for the left. 

The first arrondissement, dominated by large official buildings, including the Louvre and the main Paris town hall, has just 17,000 inhabitants out of two million in the city as a whole. The typical resident is a wealthy widow, who lives with a cat or a dog and votes for the right. 

The centre-right opposition believes that Ms Hidalgo wants to abolish the first arrondissement because it has become a bastion of resistance to the ruling left in the heart of the city. Nonsense, says Ms Hidalgo’s main assistant mayor, Bruno Julliard. The changes, planned for 2020, would make purely practical sense and would be politically “neutral”, he maintains. 

As part of her proposals for reforming Paris, Ms Hidalgo, 56, suggests that mayors of  the 17 remaining arrondissements should be granted slightly increased powers. She also wants to abolish, or rationalise, the French capital’s unique status as both a département (county) and commune (town). This would give her, as its mayor, considerable new authority over policing and roads. 

Her critics suggest that she is  positioning herself for a run at the French presidency.

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