Smoke and mirrors: Pollution centre-stage in first all-women race to be mayor of Paris

Front-runner Anne Hidalgo hopes green pledges will win the top job at City Hall. John Lichfield reports on a capital battle

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The Independent Online

The possible next mayor of Paris is conducting a photo-opportunity on the banks of the Seine. The French have a name for an instant campaign event of this kind: un pop-up.

Anne Hidalgo, 54, wants to talk about air pollution, which rose to dangerous levels in the French capital last week. It was not, she explains, her fault. Nor was it the fault of her boss, Bertrand Delanoë, who has been the Socialist Mayor of the capital since 2001.

Ms Hidalgo – favourite to top the poll in the first round of an all-women mayoral race on Sunday – lists all the things she and Mr Delanoë have done to clear the air in Paris: short-hire bicycles and electric cars; bus lanes and bike lanes; trams and new parks. All were fiercely opposed by the car-obsessed centre- right, she says.

If she is elected, Paris will breathe more easily, she promises, adding: “The day of the private car is over.”

On the television news, Ms Hidalgo’s “pop-up” resembles a busy campaign meeting. An enthusiastic crowd of supporters carries plastic flags with anti-pollution slogans. Seen from 10 yards away, it is Anne Hidalgo and a dozen close friends – a flash entourage rather than a flash mob. One of the plastic anti-pollution flags falls satirically into the Seine and joins a plastic milk bottle floating slowly towards the English Channel.

Until the past few days, an epoch-making Parisian mayoral race has failed to move the people of Paris. Une Parisienne is about to become mayor of the French capital for the first time in the city’s 4,000-year history. So what?

Neither Ms Hidalgo, nor her only serious rival, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet (universally known as NKM) of the centre-right, excites deep affection or deep hatred. Ms Hidalgo, the present deputy mayor and Mr Delanoë’s chosen successor, has fought a low-key campaign on local issues. She wants at all costs to avoid topics, from pollution to national politics, where the left is as popular as smog.

Ms Kosciusko-Morizet, 40, a former Environment Minister, wants to make Paris a symbol of the parochialism of the French left. She accuses Mr Delanoë and Ms Hidalgo of letting Paris stagnate while London booms. She has, however, spent much of her time fighting dissidents and dinosaurs within her own centre-right camp.

In the final days of the race, the dynamics of the campaign have shifted, partly because of the cloud of minuscule particles of pollution that settled over the capital last week. Ms Hidalgo picked an unnecessary quarrel with her Green allies over who was to blame. NKM has had some fun reminding Parisians that Mr Delanoë and Ms Hidalgo ran their first successful campaign in 2001 with the slogan Changeons d’ère (“Let’s start a new era”).

In truth, the sky above Paris (population two million) escapes town-hall control. Most of the pollution comes from traffic within the jumble of the wider Parisian conurbation (population eight million), which has its own mayors and its own politics. Nonetheless, Ms Hidalgo’s lieutenants are worried that the pollution crisis will shift votes to the Greens in the first round on Sunday. If the turnout in the wider left is low, NKM could defy the polls and finish narrowly ahead. This would give her powerful momentum into the run-off the following weekend.

Given the abysmal popularity of President François Hollande, it may seem strange that the left has any chance of holding on to the capital. But Paris is not France. It has a majority of left-leaning voters, ranging from the working and migrant classes to wealthy bourgeois bohemians (bobos) from the worlds of art and media.

The managerial record of Mr Delanoë and, by association Ms Hidalgo, is good. Municipal debt has fallen. Local taxes are relatively low. So which woman will be mayor?

Anne Hidalgo is a daughter of the French Dream. Her penniless parents moved with two small children from Andalusia in Spain to Lyon in 1961. She is twice 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. She is tough and clever. She has warmth but lacks sparkle. Even supporters suggest that she would be a safe pair of hands rather than an imaginative leader for a city that constantly agonises over its place in the league table of “world cities”.

NKM was the most successful of several young women promoted from relative obscurity into ministerial positions by former President Nicolas Sarkozy. Married with two small children, she is slender and elegant. She is a fluent political performer. She has sparkle but lacks warmth. Friends say she would be the imaginative mayor that Paris needs to regain its élan as a global city.

Pascal Cherki, a Socialist MP and outgoing mayor of the 14th arrondissement, a key battleground on the Left Bank of the city, told The Independent: “It will be close, closer than the polls say. All the same, Anne Hidalgo will win in the 14th and, therefore, in Paris. There is something snooty about Kosciusko-Morizet which people cannot stomach. It is as if she is running to be empress. This will be her Waterloo, not her Austerlitz.”