London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan was among the first to congratulate his Parisian counterpart, the socialist Anne Hidalgo, on her declaration that she was running in next year’s French presidential elections.
They are friends and have always displayed their affection in public, hugging on Eurostar platforms. “London is a suburb of Paris, and Paris a suburb of London,” said the mayor of Paris. She referred in part to the 250,000 French citizens living in London, making our capital one of the 10 biggest French cities. Both are children of immigrants of modest origins. Khan and Hidalgo have worked together on the impact of climate change and pollution in their cities.
However, since her re-election in 2020, Hidalgo, 62, might have also been inspired by another mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who used the role as a launchpad for his rise to the top. Like him, France’s first female mayor seems irresistibly attracted to higher places. The Elysée Palace has proved a strong magnet for the woman who sees herself as the saviour of the French Left.
Her presidential manifesto is entitled Une Femme Francaise and promises to build “a fairer France”. “Our country has reached the limits of neo-liberalism,” she said. “We have to invent another model, of ecological transition and an economy that combats inequality.” It chimes with the public mood of the country, where after the pandemic, people want the state to be more hands-on, with stronger social and financial protection, more welfare and action on inequalities. There is significant support to bring back the Socialist-enacted wealth tax that President Macron abolished.
This tone is markedly different from the one set by former presidents including Nicolas Sarkozy, who last month was sentenced to a year of house arrest after illegally financing his campaign for re-election in 2012. He has vigorously denied wrongdoing and will appeal. The Left should have capitalised on Right-wing Sarkozy’s fall from grace, but they have their own problems. With five declared candidates, and there may be more, they have been called the “confetti” Left, and the latest polls have not been kind to Hidalgo who, since she declared, has gone from nine per cent to six per cent of intended votes.
Will she win her party’s backing on Thursday? The Socialist Party has not fully recovered from its beating at the last presidential elections in 2017 when its candidate, Benoît Hamon, since withdrawn from politics, scored six per cent in the first round.
Many of course will argue that Hidalgo has the required qualities to unite the “orphans of the Left”. She often speaks of her modest start in life, her immigrant parents, an electrician and a seamstress, who fled Franco’s Spain when she was two and moved to Lyon; her solid experience after 20 years as deputy mayor and then mayor of the capital city; and the fact that she is a woman and had to fend for herself in a male-dominated environment. Hidalgo has two grown-up children from her first marriage and a third, Arthur, 19, with her second husband Jean-Marc Germain, a Socialist politician.
She is a less divisive figure than Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the hard-Left candidate, and more appealing to a wider electorate than both the socialist Arnaud Montebourg, who only talks about the reindustrialisation of France. Backed by a group of young and ambitious socialist French mayors, Hidalgo will soon have to make a real entrée, or she risks losing momentum. But she sometimes sounds a little too desperate. Recently, her proposal to double teachers’ salaries was met with disbelief, as was her suggestion to lower taxes on petrol. Not exactly in line with her policy to drive cars out Paris.
Hidalgo can however get some solace by just watching what is happening on the French Right. While the main party, Les Républicains, is still deciding how it will go about choosing its candidate or simply endorsing one among the three declared runners — Michel Barnier, Valérie Pécresse and Xavier Bertrand, all former ministers of Sarkozy — the far-Right is living through a revolution of its own. Marine Le Pen, who was polling at the stratospheric 28 per cent just before the summer, has plummeted to 15. The culprit is Eric Zemmour, a polemicist and television talk-show star who has not declared yet. Now polling ahead of Le Pen, at 16 per cent, he would be mad not to run for the presidency. Invited to debate with the fierce orator Mélenchon on television a month ago, Zemmour proved the more popular with the viewers with his man-in-the-street delivery and simple, if not simplistic ideas, mostly about immigration. The son of Algerian Jewish working-class parents, Zemmour is also playing the modest upbringing card. Le Pen’s former party leader father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, went as far as endorsing him against her.
The elephant in the room is the President, who has not declared himself yet. Macron must be seen, as long as possible, as the man in charge, working to restore France’s economy after the pandemic, and tackling the many geopolitical challenges of the time, holding the European fort as Angela Merkel exits the scene. The disarray of both Right and Left is providing him with a boulevard, as we say in French. With polls putting him at 24 per cent in the first round and around 65 per cent for the second if faced with Le Pen or Zemmour, the Presidency seems like an easy win.
However, France being France, it would be unwise to predict a race that could provide spectacular crashes and victories. But Hidalgo will have to move up a gear if she wants to challenge the President and lead the Left to victory.