The most spectacular office space in Paris belongs neither to the French President nor to the Prime Minister, but to the city’s Mayor. The immense corner office in the Hotel de Ville – covering 155 square metres and embellished with oak panelling, antique furniture, chandeliers and contemporary art – was the elegant launchpad to power of the former President, Jacques Chirac.
For the past 12 years, it has been the home of the innovative, sharp-tempered, popular Socialist mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, the father of the Véliband cycle scheme and, therefore, the grandfather of the similar “Boris bikes” initiative introduced by London’s mayor, Boris Johnson.
The next person to inherit this glittering power-base will be a woman. The French municipal elections are a year away but it takes no crystal ball to predict that a female politician will become mayor of Paris for the first time in the city’s 4,000-year history in late March 2014. The Socialist candidate, already anointed by Mr Delanoë and by President François Hollande, is the present deputy mayor, Anne Hidalgo, 53. Her main opponent will be decided by a two-round primary election on the centre-right which begins in May. There will be minor, male candidates but the true contest will be between two women first projected into ministerial office by ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The former environment minister, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, 39 – cool, clever and slightly dull – is expected to defeat the former justice minister, Rachida Dati, 47, who is clever, charismatic and slightly flaky. The new centrist UDI party may put up a candidate of its own in the autumn. If so, it will be another former “Sarkozette” – the “belle” and “rebelle” Rama Yade, 37, an outspoken former human rights minister who was one of the few Sarkozy ministers to stand up to her boss in public, while the Green party candidate may well be its former leader, Cécile Duflot, 37, who is now the Housing Minister.
Thus all five leading candidates for mayor in one of the world’s greatest cities will be female. The two “finalists” next March will, barring accidents, be Ms Hidalgo and Ms Kosciusko-Morizet, known as “NKM”. Such a collection of candidates would be startling in any country; in France, it is a revolution. French women were denied the vote until 1944 – 26 years after Britain. To this day, women remain relatively poorly represented in parliament, especially on the right. Other cities, such as Lille and Strasbourg, have already elected women mayors, but Paris is different. It is a département as well as a city. It has a population of two million, 50,000 city employees and an €8bn municipal budget. Unlike Boris Johnson, who met Ms Dati and NKM when he visited the French capital last week, the Mayor of Paris has real power. He – or from next year “she” – has direct influence on the city’s schools, childcare, housing, businesses, roads, parks, street-cleaning, rubbish-collection, planning permission and cultural activities (but relatively little power over policing or transport).
So why the crush of women candidates? Ms Kosciusko-Morizet has emerged unexpectedly as the main centre-right hope from the train wreck of last year’s fiddled election for the national leadership of the main centre-right party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP). Her rival, Ms Dati, is largely self-chosen and disliked by many barons of the centre-right in Paris, partly, as she complains, for racist reasons.
Ms Hidalgo is the personal choice of Mr Delanoë, who wants to stand down and will probably join the Socialist government. Sour, male Socialist politicians in Paris accuse Mr Delanoë of over-promoting Ms Hidalgo to promote his trendy, modern image.
Interestingly, four out of the five women have immigrant backgrounds. Ms Kozkiusko-Morizet is partly Polish-Jewish. Ms Dati’s parents were born in North Africa. Ms Hidalgo moved to Lyon with her Spanish parents when she was two. Ms Yade was born in Senegal. Partly accidental or not, the emergence of such an unlikely line-up suggests that something is shifting in the ageing, white, male-dominated landscape of French politics.
The all-woman contest is unlikely to be a soft or gentle affair. The sisters of the centre-right, Ms Dati and NKM have, so far, been exchanging compliments, rather than insults. But NKM accuses Ms Hidalgo of being a political “heiress”, with no ideas of her own. Mr Hidalgo says NKM is the ambitious daughter of a political family who wants to use Paris as a springboard to national power.
Who will win? Paris has become a left-leaning city in the past 15 years. The swing votes are held by relatively rich eco-bobos – “bourgeois bohemian” professionals with leftish-green views.
Opinion polls suggest that the next mayor will be Ms Hidalgo. But the unpopularity of the left-wing, national government and her own eco-bobo credentials give Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet a fighting chance. If she can conquer Paris city hall, NKM would emerge as a future centre-right Prime Minister or even, some way down the road, a possible first woman President of France.
Five for the fight: the candidates
Ms Hidalgo is a daughter of the French Dream. Her penniless parents moved with two small children from Andalusia to Lyon in 1961. Ms Hidalgo, 53, rose, through studies in social science and increasingly senior positions in Socialist ministerial offices, to become the second most powerful politician in the French capital.
She has twice been married and has three children. Her supporters describe her as a consensual, hard-working politician who has always managed to remain close to her modest roots. Her critics include several male Socialist politicians in Paris, who think they ought to be the next mayor. They say she has risen without trace largely because she is a good-looking woman from an immigrant background. “Anne was the perfect PR front to symbolise the modern, progressive values which [the present mayor] Bertrand Delanoë wanted to stand for,” said one Socialist parliamentarian with a Paris constituency. As mayor, Ms Hidalgo says she would make Paris the IT capital of the world and an environmental and social showcase.
Arguably the most calamitous of Mr Sarkozy’s “outreach” ministerial choices, Ms Dati has survived as a sort of comedian-politician performing in a permanent one-woman show. As Justice Minister, she is best remembered for annoying her civil servants and most of the legal profession – and becoming a single parent while in office.
Ms Dati, 47, is the daughter of North African immigrant parents, brought up in the suburbs of Lyon. She rose rapidly in the legal profession and pestered Nicolas Sarkozy, then Interior Minister, until he took her into his private office.
Catapulted into the justice ministry when he became President in 2007, she was rapidly bundled out of the way to the European Parliament. To her credit, she has since succeeded in creating a political identity of her own as a maverick, sharp-tongued critic of both right and left – but especially the left.
Ms Dati has challenged as “undemocratic” the electronic, vote-from-home, centre-right primary organised for the Paris mayoral race this May and June. She may be right but would not win the nomination in any primary format.
Ms Kosciusko-Morizet, or “NKM”, is the most successful of several young women promoted from relative obscurity into ministerial positions by former President Nicolas Sarkozy. She studied ecological engineering at the École Polytechnique, one of the great finishing schools of the French elite.
As Environment Minister, she impressed even her political opponents as a rare politician who understood, and cared about, her brief. NKM, 39, is also one of the few centre-right politicians in the Sarkozy era willing to confront the racist and “anti-Republican” tendencies of the far-right National Front.
She looked deeply unhappy last year as the official spokeswoman for Mr Sarkozy’s unsuccessful hard-right, re-election campaign. Married with two small children, both born while she was a minister, NKM is a fluent and tough political performer but sometimes lacks sparkle and warmth.
She insists that Paris, the city where she was born, is not simply a springboard to higher, national office. She is, however, young enough to fulfil two six-year terms in the Hôtel de Ville and emerge as a leading figure in French politics at the end of the next decade.
Rama Yade, 37, was born in Senegal and came to France when she was 11. But unlike Ms Dati and Ms Hidalgo, she is not the daughter of poor immigrants. Her father was a history professor, diplomat and private secretary to the Senegalese President, Léopold Sédar Senghor.
She shot to prominence as an eloquent, beautiful and, above all, black speaker at President Nicolas Sarkozy’s campaign meetings in 2007. She became Human Rights Minister and distinguished herself by criticising some of Sarkozy’s foreign policy manoeuvres (such as the state visit granted to the late Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi).
Ms Yade was demoted to Sports Minister and later broke with Mr Sarkozy’s centre-right party. A Muslim married to a Jewish historian, she is about to have her first baby. She is expected to run in Paris for the new centrist Union des Democrats et Indépendants (UDI) party.
Ms Duflot, 37, the former leader of the French Green party, and now Housing Minister, is seriously tempted to run as green candidate in Paris next year. Her career as a minister has been marked by two sartorial controversies.
She was criticised for attending her first cabinet meeting in jeans and was whistled at by right-wing MPs when she made a speech in a blue-and-white spotted summer dress.
She has one daughter and her partner is the older brother of controversial pop star Bernard Cantat, who was jailed for manslaughter following the death of his girlfriend.