Two years ago, no one would have given Socialist politician Anne Hidalgo much chance of keeping her job as Paris mayor in this month’s local elections, so strong was support for President Emmanuel Macron and his La République en Marche party in the French capital.
Two months ago, by contrast, no one would have given her much chance of losing. Months of angry protests over everything from fuel prices to pension reform had sapped support for Mr Macron and divided his party.
But recent events have again thrown open the race for the most coveted prize in France’s municipal polls, the first round of which will go ahead on Sunday, despite the coronavirus crisis. The political arithmetic makes it almost certain the victor will be one of three women.
First, Rachida Dati, former justice minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, surged in opinion polls to challenge Ms Hidalgo after being chosen by the centre-right Les Républicains as its champion.
Then a sex scandal forced out Benjamin Griveaux, Mr Macron’s candidate, with the consequence that Agnès Buzyn, who was hurriedly drafted from the health ministry in the midst of the coronavirus crisis to replace him and is seen as a more effective politician, has boosted her party’s popularity and given it an outside chance of winning.
The capital is an important political fiefdom. The Paris region accounts for about a third of French economic output and the city — run by the late Jacques Chirac for 18 years before he became president — is seen as a stepping stone to national politics.
The system for electing the mayor is complicated: after two rounds of voting on March 15 and 22 for councillors in different sectors and arrondissements, an electoral college of 163 will choose the winner.
An Ipsos-Sopra Steria poll for France TV this month put Ms Hidalgo’s list top in the first round with 26 per cent, followed by Ms Dati with 23, Ms Buzyn on 19 and David Belliard for the greens on 11. Cédric Villani, a flamboyant mathematician who defected from Mr Macron’s party and mounted his own campaign after losing the nomination to Mr Griveaux, was on 7 per cent, Danielle Simonnet of the far-left La France Insoumise on 4.5 and Serge Federbusch of the far-right Rassemblement National on 4 per cent.
Ms Hidalgo, the favourite, has solid support from leftwing voters in the eastern districts. With a pledge of a “100 per cent bike” city and restrictions on vehicle access, she is also set to lure green voters in the second round if Mr Belliard falls short.
But Ms Dati is a formidably energetic campaigner and has focused on issues favoured by the right and the far-right: crime and street-cleaning. “We must re-establish public safety,” she told the FT at her campaign headquarters. “Petty crime has exploded . . . Paris has deteriorated, is more unsafe and is no longer the shining city it once was.”
Arnaud Benedetti, a political analyst and editor of the Revue Politique et Parlementaire journal, said Ms Dati could pull off an electoral surprise after portraying herself as the candidate of change and framing the contest as a traditional battle between left and right.
As the second of 11 children born to north African immigrants, who built her own career in law and business, she can appeal to working-class Parisians, while as mayor of the comfortable seventh arrondissement she is also able to connect to the conservative middle class, he said. “She’s the most clearly identified anti-Hidalgo candidate,” said Mr Benedetti.
Meanwhile, Ms Buzyn has emphasised her managerial competence and attacked Ms Hidalgo for overseeing a 50 per cent rise in the city’s debt to €6bn during her six-year tenure. In a nearly three-hour television debate this week, the former health minister said that in her programme, “everything is financed, everything is budgeted”.
But as a soft-spoken technocrat rather than a professional politician, Ms Buzyn has struggled to stand out in the campaign against the more media-savvy Ms Dati in the short time since she replaced Mr Griveaux. “It’s difficult to turn yourself into a political animal in a fortnight,” said Mr Benedetti.
Much will depend on Mr Villani and his supporters, with he and his voters being courted by the three favourites for the second-round run-off.
In Tuesday night’s seven-candidate television debate, Mr Villani and Ms Buzyn both chose Paris itself when asked to show a photograph of another international city that would inspire them. “This is the only city that inspires me,” said Ms Buzyn.
New York was picked by both Ms Dati — because of former mayor Rudy Giuliani’s crime control strategy — and the far-right candidate Mr Federbusch, who focused on terrorism and flourished a picture of the World Trade Center before the 9/11 attacks.
Green candidate Mr Belliard opted for San Francisco because of its zero waste policies, while far-left contender Ms Simonnet chose Berlin because of its rent control. Ms Hidalgo picked Copenhagen, showing a picture of streets full of bicycles.
None of the frontrunners is assured of victory, given the turmoil in national politics and the impact of the coronavirus outbreak. Shifting allegiances between the two rounds of voting add further uncertainty. “Paris,” says Mr Benedetti, “is a micro-climate”.