Red Queen of Alsace cruises towards victory

A Socialist woman mayor has won a big following in a right-wing city, writes Mary Dejevsky in Strasbourg
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Like every city, town and village in France, Strasbourg - Euro- city and capital of the Alsace region bordering Germany - will vote on Sunday for its mayor and city council. Neat in a Germanic way, with timbered houses and cobbled streets in the centre, quiet suburbs and a dash of French elan, Strasbourg has always been regarded as a conservative place, and its local politics reflected that: solidly right.

Six years ago that changed when Catherine Trautmann,known as "Queen Catherine", returned to her roots from national politics. A Socialist, she had lost her seat in the National Assembly and her junior government post, and decided to stand for mayor in her home city.

In appearance, Mrs Trautmann is a cross between Queen Beatrix and Margaret Thatcher. She attributes her subsequent victory to strong campaigning, clarity of purpose, and the assumption of the right that the city would never go Socialist. Others point to a strong performance by the extreme right National Front, which split the right-wing vote.

Now Mrs Trautmann, the only woman mayor of a large city in France, is standing to keep her post as mayor. The odds are that she will succeed for the same reasons that gave her victory six years ago. She has gained a reputation for efficiency, putting Strasbourg on the national map. The National Front in Alsace is - to judge by its performance in the presidential elections - stronger than before but not strong enough to win.

This time, too, the mainstream right in the shape of the Gaullist RPR had difficulty finding a candidate to stand against her. It settled on Philippe Richert, but he recognises that not being a native is a liability.

The worst complaints you hear about Mrs Trautmann - a Protestant theologian by training - concern her blunt manner and insistence on driving hard bargains, but they do not challenge her competence.

"People even seem to have forgotten," Mr Richert says with grudging admiration, "that she is a Socialist."

Strasbourg under her leadership has attracted funding from the European Union, Paris and private investors. It looks spruce and its rundown suburbs are not as neglected as those in nearby towns.

Sitting behind a heavy wooden desk in what seems the only town hall office furnished in a traditional, rather than hi-tech, style, Mrs Trautmann tells how she persuaded richer organisations than the city exchequer to fund her building projects. The European Parliament has been persuaded to stay, and Strasbourg now has the second lowest deficit in France, after Paris.

The mayor's most visible feat - the one her opponents most envy and the population most appreciates - is the completion of the tramway. Sleek greentrams now glide through the heart of the city, linking the suburbs and the centre.

The project had stalled for 20 years when she took over. She got it moving, persuaded city centre businesses that the disruption during building would be worthwhile and is now celebrating its success.

The tramway, however, has had one "drawback", which Mrs Trautmann alludes to, though not in those terms. It has brought the housing estates in the suburbs, with their Turkish and north African populations, closer to town.

Last Monday evening, a public holiday, large groups of young people were strolling through the city streets, eating kebabs from the many Turkish takeaways, and chattering loudly. They did not seem threatening; they had as much right to be there as anyone else; but they were different from the sedate Strasbourgeois who moved off the pavements at their approach.

This is the other side of Strasbourg. It is one which, says Yvan Blot, local leader of the National Front, MEP and local council candidate, has strengthened the Front in the city.

Sitting in his comfortable drawing room, with oriental rugs on the floor, a harp in the corner and a magnificent grey Persian cat beside his chair, Mr Blot says that while he lives in a pleasant bourgeois suburb, his voters do not. "We are the only party whose support among the working classes is actually increasing," he says.

Mrs Trautmann points out that largely as a result of the money the council has given to the housing estates the National Front in Strasbourg has been less successful than in some other Alsace cities.

She is uncompromising on the subject. She refuses to talk to the Front or allow it to hold public meetings in the city. "They know where I stand," she says.

The voters of Strasbourg also know where Mrs Trautmann stands. This time her record and her directness are electoral assets. But in six years' time, who knows?