The Heiress v the Harpist

By Kim Willsher

For the first time two women are vying to be Paris mayor but their campaigns are drawing ridicule.

Mayoral Socialist candidate Anne Hidalgo is accused of trying too hard. Photo / AP
Mayoral Socialist candidate Anne Hidalgo is accused of trying too hard. Photo / AP

The homeless, unemployed guys kicking their heels around the exit of the former St Martin metro near Paris' symbolic Place de la Republique, do not need a swimming pool, a nightclub or a restaurant.

The men, of various origins and uncertain ages, their faces and gaits ravaged from life on the street, need what the phantom station gives them: coffee, breakfast, a shower, advice, even books to borrow. Attempting to explain plans to transform this, a Salvation Army "day centre", into something considerably more glossy, attractive and what the French would call "bobo", is a mission in itself.

The men shrug. The whole idea proposed by centre-right mayoral candidate Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet seems utterly foreign and, frankly, fantastical.

"Don't worry," says a passerby overhearing the conversation. "It'll never happen."

Some weeks previously, across Paris in the city's billionaires' row, clusters of news reporters and nimbys had waited in the cold and rain for the election frontrunner and Kosciusko-Morizet's rival, Socialist Anne Hidalgo. In the shadow of magnificent shuttered properties, many owned by foreign oligarchs, dictators, kleptocrats and royals, the protesters waved hastily made banners opposing Hidalgo's plan to transform Baron Haussmann's grand Avenue Foch, a one-time walkway for the wealthy, into a "green corridor"for the masses.

"Non to Mme Hidalgo's Luna Park", they read. Hidalgo declared the plans for a park, pedestrian area and playground "magnifique". For the nimbys, the elephant in the architects' plans was a certain shaded area running parallel to the avenue designated for council housing.

"We're already building social housing," lamented one protester in the arrondissement that has only 2.5 per cent of council houses, far short of the 20 per cent required by law. "Fifteen or so flats, over there," he waved his hands in a vague direction. "It's crazy, it'll never happen," said his neighbour. As France's two-round municipal elections approach (March 23 and 30), the two women in a duel to become the capital's first Madame le Maire are digging deeper into the box marked "grandstanding ideas unlikely to see the light of day" (not least because both have promised not to raise city taxes).

The French love a good political debate, discussion, even dispute over dinner, but these elections appear to have failed to galvanise much public enthusiasm, judging by the curious lack of table thumping in homes across the capital.

Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet is the subject of ridicule.
Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet is the subject of ridicule.

Madani Cheurfa, a political analyst at Cevipof, the study centre on French political life, believes the Paris municipal elections, as elsewhere in France, have been infected by the general cloud of gloom that has descended on the whole republic. He blamed a lack of clear water between the two candidates for muddying the election.

"The principal game being played by the candidates is one of consensus. Everyone is agreed that it's important to fight unemployment, to fight homelessness, to fight cancer. It's like saying 'war is bad'; everyone agrees," Cheurfa said.

"The consequence of this is that we have seen the campaign become super-personalised and simplified in the media and social networks. The fact that there are two women candidates, which is original, has magnified this."

The candidates have done little to dispel the nagging feeling that this campaign is about image over ideas or ideals. Hidalgo arrived for her Avenue Foche walkabout in a stubby black Smart car, a gesture that smacked of a politician trying too hard. Even more breathtaking was Hidalgo's official campaign poster released last week, showing a heavily retouched (Hidalgo's team denied this) portrait described by French PR veteran Jacques Seguela as like "a L'Oreal advert for anti-wrinkle cream".

Kosciusko-Morizet was photographed using a free bicycle - all very ordinary - but someone pointed out the 2000 ($3257) designer handbag in the front basket, while the inappropriate stiletto heels she wore on a scooter for another publicity shot could not go unnoticed.

Ridicule abounded on social networks after NKM, pictured looking wistfully out of a metro train window, described the city's underground network as a "place of charm", particularly line 13, one of the most crowded and moaned about.

The laughs, however, turned to boos when she was photographed, in a leather jacket and jeans, smoking what looked like a rollup with a group of homeless men.

Since NKM published her plans for Paris's ghost metro stations, including turning one into a swimming pool, Hidalgo has clearly decided that water is the new solid political ground, promising renovations to existing pools and new ones, including floating pools on the Seine.

For the Salvation Army and the careworn guys outside the unused St Martin station there are much more important priorities. "Food, equality for children, homes, proper facilities for foreign immigrants, that sort of thing," said a spokesperson for the organisation. "Just basic services."

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