PARIS -- The battle to win the hearts of Parisians and preside over France's capital from the opulent city hall, has been nasty, and unpredictable.
Three women top polls, including incumbent Mayor Anne Hidalgo, a Socialist best known for her divisive effort to rid Paris of cars. She wants to create “mini-forests” with 170,000 newly-planted trees and make the city center fully bicycle-friendly.
The nationwide voting is about local issues and centers on choosing the mayor, traditionally the most liked political figure among French. But local elections can help lay the groundwork for presidential voting in two years, so the stakes are high, and Paris — where the next mayor will host the 2024 Olympics — is the crown jewel.
Macron risks a huge humiliation. His centrist party, The Republic on the Move, which he created from scratch before his 2017 election, lacks local power bases, meaning it is likely to fare poorly.
Seized during the French Revolution, set afire in a brutal 1871 repression, Paris City Hall, drenched in 338 statues and grander than the presidential Elysee Palace, is indeed a plum. Protocol demands that visiting heads of state visit the Paris mayor.
Rachida Dati, a conservative justice minister under former President Nicolas Sarkozy, is tasting victory. A reborn Dati, who exchanged her extravagant tastes for no-nonsense dress and an austere style, is running neck-and-neck with Hidalgo. Dati puts cleaning up Paris streets and securing them with armed municipal police and a plethora of video cameras her priority.
“It’s anarchy everywhere” and “revolting filth,” she said in a debate last week when candidates threw daggers at Hidalgo.
Third in recent polls and late-comer, Agnes Buzyn, a physician, was no kinder to the current mayor, saying that “we will all die” if Paris, Europe’s most densely populated capital, doesn’t cool down, a reference to the omnipresent concrete and Hidalgo’s project to build more towers.
Buzyn, a medical doctor, was plucked from her job as health minister in mid-February amid the world crisis over the deadly COVID-19 virus to replace Macron's candidate. Clearly pitching for votes from the conservative camp, she too wants armed municipal police for the capital she grew up in, along with clean streets.
Most of the five other candidates have cameo roles — but could prove crucial to forming alliances ahead of the March 22 second round — or the so-called third round when newly elected city councilors choose the new Paris mayor who ultimately is indirectly elected.
Taking Paris would be a big symbolic win that would save Macron's honor, and his chance to convince the population at large that his party, made up mainly of citizens without political experience, wasn't a fluke.
Macron took nearly 35% of the Paris vote in the 2017 presidential election.
“The sociology of Paris is very favorable to President Macron. He should be winning Paris,” said political scientist Dominique Moisi, referring to the Paris of today, mainly educated and open-minded residents with comfortable incomes. “But it’s far from clear today that such will be the case, given the fact that he chose early on the wrong candidate.”
Buzyn was named a candidate on Feb. 16, two days after Benjamin Griveaux pulled out of the race. Griveaux, former government spokesman, abruptly announced his departure after a graphic sex video began circulating online.
Enter the Russian performance artist, Piotr Pavlensky, who said he had posted the video, surreptitiously obtained, to denounce the "hypocrisy” of Griveaux for promoting family values in the campaign. The response across the political spectrum, including from rival mayoral candidates, was solidarity with Griveaux.
Buzyn politely dropped Griveaux's grand plan to move a major Paris train station to make way for a New York-style Central Park in the French capital, but quickly became a feisty contender.
"This city was neglected. This city was mismanaged. Madame Hidalgo degraded the quality of life in Paris," Buzyn said in an interview with the daily 20 Minutes. "Paris must again become the City of Light."
Like Macron's party, Dati's conservative The Republicans party, is in free fall, hoping for a revival, just like the Socialists who tanked during the 2017 presidential election. Going into the race, only Hidalgo stands as a prominent flag-bearer for the Socialists.
“We will make this city one of mixed (incomes), enjoyable and breathable,” Hidalgo vowed during the debate, promising 550 million euros to clean up.
As for Griveaux, the dropout, he did leave a legacy despite his short-lived campaign: his proposal to rid Paris of bedbugs has become official with a government website to combat infestations.