PARIS – Three women have emerged as the top candidates in the race to become Paris mayor, all but ensuring that one of the world’s most prestigious civic offices will remain in female hands.
Sunday’s first round of municipal elections is also expected to test backing for President Emmanuel Macron’s ambitious reform agenda following a second winter of discontent marked by mass protests.
Polls show Macron’s Republic on the Move party struggling amid a furor over the government’s decision to force through unpopular pension reforms by decree.
The elections for more than 500,000 councilors and nearly 35,000 mayors also follow the yellow vest rebellion of 2018-2019, which lifted the lid on widespread anger in rural France against a leader who is seen by critics as the president of the rich.
A fresh setback after his party finished behind the far-right National Rally in last year’s European elections would show that “Macron’s magic powers are no longer that magic,” said Bruno Cautres, a researcher and lecturer at Sciences Po university in Paris.
In the race to govern the national capital, incumbent Anne Hidalgo, conservative Rachida Dati and centrist Agnes Buzyn could not be more different in temperament nor career paths, yet each embodies key components of the city’s social mosaic.
Paris’ Socialist leader has been at the helm since 2014, after serving as deputy mayor of the world’s most-visited city since 2001.
Hidalgo was born in 1959 in San Fernando, a town in Andalusia, Spain, to an electrician father and a mother who worked as a seamstress.
Two years later the family moved to Lyon in southeastern France — Ana became Anne and citizenship came when she was 14 years old.
“One day in second grade, my teacher told me, ‘Little Spanish girls don’t make it to the top of the class.’ That only made me want to take up the challenge,” she told the Parisien newspaper this month.
Her term as Paris mayor began with a baptism of fire — the 2015 jihadi attacks at the offices of the satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo and then the Bataclan concert hall, which shattered the city’s famed joie de vivre.
Hidalgo pushed ahead with her signature plan to reduce the use of automobiles in the city, including a controversial move to turn a key riverbank highway into a promenade.
Opponents accused her of a high-handed approach, a claim she brushes off by saying she wants to move quickly.
She has also suggested that sexism underlies much of the criticism.
“I don’t like people walking all over me. Certain things infuriate me, I can’t stand lying, but I am honest and forthright,” she told Le Parisien.
Challenges have mounted, however, as residents complain about increasingly dirty streets and a proliferation of rats, migrant camps and costs of living that are driving some 12,000 people out of Europe’s densest city each year.
Dati, who burst onto the national scene as justice minister under President Nicolas Sarkozy, was born in 1965 in the drab industrial town of Saint-Remy, north of Lyon, and raised in social housing in nearby Chalon-sur-Saone.
Daughter of a Moroccan father and Algerian mother, Dati’s success made her a poster child for France’s promise of integration and merit-based social opportunity for all.
The second of 11 children, she would help her siblings with homework while juggling her own studies and part-time jobs, including caregiver at a local hospital.
She racked up diplomas in law and business, and has worked as an auditor in both the private and public sectors, including the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, as well as a public prosecutor.
But Dati became a divisive figure in right-wing circles after becoming justice minister, with both allies and critics noting a blunt manner and self-assuredness of someone who has reached the highest ranks by sheer force of will.
She is currently the focus of a corruption inquiry over allegations she was paid €900,000 ($1 million) by the disgraced former Renault boss Carlos Ghosn for fictitious advisory work. She has denied the charges.
A born-and-bred Parisian, Buzyn was a successful doctor who suddenly entered politics when she was picked as health minister after Emmanuel Macron swept to the presidency in 2017.
Her maternal grandparents came to the city from Poland in 1929, and during the Nazi German occupation of World War II they spirited her mother away to eastern France, where she was hidden by a French family.
Her father, who is also from Poland, survived Auschwitz and became an orthopedic surgeon before arriving in France in the 1950s.
As a student, she traveled to the U.S., where, she says, “I discovered hard rock. … I’m a fan of Linkin Park, Metallica.”
The leukemia specialist was just 30 when named director of hematology at the renowned Necker hospital, and later became head of the national cancer institute.
Since entering government she has faced a simmering revolt among overstretched hospital workers, and is now facing her first electoral battle after declaring her last-minute candidacy as replacement for Benjamin Griveaux, brought down by a sex-video scandal.
“Politics is violent and at times painful, but when you’ve had to give horrible diagnoses to families, to children, it’s really much less serious,” she said last month.