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Column: For the first time, a woman is to be the mayor of Paris

The campaign race for Paris city hall has the city abuzz as – for the first time in the 2,000 year history of the capital – a female will be mayor, writes Natalie Tennyson.

Natalie Tennyson

THE POLITICAL SCENE in Paris has been abuzz since spring 2013 when it was established for the first time in the 2,000 year history of the capital that a female will be the next mayor of France’s cultural and political centre.

The all-female campaign race for Paris city hall is especially significant in the context that just one eighth of French towns with a population larger than 100,000 have female mayors. In fact, Ireland is not alone it its severe lack of female participation in politics. France ranks at 45 in the world in the UN’s 2013 Global Gender Gap survey between Namibia and Uganda and the French political system has a sexist reputation.

Since the outset, a lively campaign has emerged between two very different and equally dynamic characters; Anne Hidalgo, current deputy mayor and member of Parti Socialiste (Socialist Party) and Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet (known as NKM) and rising star of her party, the Conservative Union for a Popular Movement. They will face the polls on 30 March.

Hildalgo is the natural replacement to succeed her mentor; current socialist Mayor Bertrand Delanoë and she has the advantage of 12 years’ experience as a city councillor. However her rival, 40 year-old NKM, is a serious contender who speaks her mind and doesn’t hold back on her own political ambitions. The race has even seen 54-year-old Hidalgo pledging to launch legal action against NKM for ‘mendacious’ defamation claims.

This may be the first time that Paris will see a female mayor but for NKM, who has been repeatedly asked about being the ‘first’ of two female candidates for one of the top jobs in French politics, is surprised by the level of questioning from journalists. She quipped; “I’ve been female for 40 years. I’m used to it.”

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Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

Left vs Right

The first disagreement between the two came over differing views on tourism with NKM calling for stores in the city’s main tourist districts to open on Sundays, and stating that Paris is losing tour groups to London on the weekends because of requirements that shops close for a day. She also wants to have zero tolerance on the pickpockets who swarm the subways and major attractions including the Eiffel Tower, saying that Paris has “something to learn about hospitality”.

Hidalgo unsurprisingly holds a traditional leftist view and argues that the French system works for its people, saying that she doesn’t want Paris – which virtually closes down on Sundays and in the evenings – to “look like Anglo-Saxon cities” working 24 hours a day.

Hildalgo, the daughter of an immigrant Spanish labourer and seamstress, is hoping the Parisian electorate will choose her over NKM, the fair, patrician scion of a family of mayors, ambassadors and senators. NKM is repeatedly unapologetic about her background.

Future ambitions

NKM is a former spokesperson for former president Nicolas Sarkozy during his failed 2012 re-election campaign and served two stints as a minister in Sarkozy’s government. Differing to Hildalgo, she is likely to go on to pursue further political ambitions as being the first female French president.

Speaking to the European Press Association in October 2013 Hildalgo downplayed her political ambitions; “I wasn’t born with the idea that I would have a brilliant political career. I owe everything to the schools of the republic.”

Hidalgo doesn’t share NKM’s prime ministerial and presidential ambitions even though the role of Mayor is seen as an inevitable step to Presidency. “I chose Paris over national politics,” she says and is also keen to highlight her ties with Paris. “When you’re lucky enough, like me, to know Paris deeply, to have this extremely strong bond of faith with my city, being mayor of Paris is sufficient ambition.”

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Anne Hidalgo. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

Hollande

However, in recent times it has been France’s president Francois Hollande who has been making headlines not only in France but also in worldwide media over his alleged affair with actor Julie Gayet and thus overshadowing the campaign for mayor.

This comes at at a time when Hollande has broken all records for unpopularity. What does this mean for his fellow party member Hildago and will NKM be at an automatic advantage? Hildago has been on the defence following attacks on France’s ‘failed socialist experiment’ and following comments from the London mayor, Boris Johnston’s statement that London is the greatest city on the planet.

Meanwhile, NKM has interestingly not commented thus far on the Hollande scandal. This would have been an easy political point to score but perhaps reflects the French’s reluctance to engage in politicians’ private lives.

Re-emergence of the right?

Immigration is proving a contentious issue among the entire French electorate. A recent survey indicated that two-thirds of French people say there are too many immigrants in France though ironically France is one of the most closed countries in the world with just 8.2 per cent immigrant population.

Right-wing leaders want to equate immigration to economic insecurity with the anti-immigrant National Front (FN) leader Marine Le Pen estimating immigrants cost France €70 billion annually.

Adding to that fear is what seems to be growing Muslim extremists living in France and the jihadists who leave France to fight the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria symbolise an Islamist “fifth column” within France, perhaps the most potent of fears associated with immigration. The government fears that jihadists will return from Syria to carry out attacks in France. It’s no wonder that Hildago is on the defense with rising unemployment numbers meanwhile NKM is enjoying positive poll indicators.

However, it’s not a case of unemployed people voting for the Socialist Party who traditionally see the PS as protecting their rights, in fact 40 per cent vote for FN. Of course, FN supporters cannot vote for a FN representative in the campaign though they are more likely to vote for the conservative NKM rather than Hildago. Ahead of the European parliamentary elections on 25 May, opinion polls have indicated hat FN could win 24 per cent of the vote.

Outcome

It’s difficult to predict the outcome of the mayoral election with NKM, for the first time, overtaking Hildago in the polls. The results are neck-and-neck with only 1 per cent between the candidates. Close campaigns are always exciting however, it will be interesting to see whether the all-female campaign will have proved to engage and encourage female participation in French politics.

Natalie Tennyson is a Senior Account Executive at Pembroke Communications. She is from Armagh and studied politics at the University of Manchester having specialised in British politics and analysing political campaigns. Natalie works with clients from the education, health, legal, agri and financial sectors in the Corporate team at Pembroke.

Read: Paris Mayor calls for ban on controversial comedian accused of anti-Semitism

Read: Criminal investigation launched into photo of Hollande’s alleged lover

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Natalie Tennyson

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