The Paris Mayoral Election Explained

Struggling to keep track of the latest developments of the 2020 municipal elections in the capital? It’s understandable! Here’s a recap regarding the main parties involved and the candidates running for mayor.

Local Paris elections were once a classic story of left versus right – and that story is actually a surprisingly short one. The first modern democratic elections for the capital’s mayoral office took place in 1977, after nearly two centuries of direct supervision by the centralized République. Apart from short episodes after the 1848 revolution and most strikingly during the 1871 Paris Commune, citizens living in the capital had previously no representation at the local level.

The conservative Jacques Chirac became the first Parisian mayor of the modern era; he later went on to win the French presidency in 1995 after 18 years and three terms at the Hôtel de ville. He was followed by fellow right-winger Jean Tibéri, whose reputation was gradually marred by political scandals to the point of his inability to seek reelection .

The following mayors – the audacious trailblazer Bertrand Delanoë, as well as his successor, the environmentally-minded Anne Hidalgo (who currently holds the office) – were elected as members of the Socialist Party. Their successes in 2001 and 2014 resulted from the strategic union of the Parisian left, forming a broad progressive coalition comprising of Socialist, Green and Communist representatives.

Next year Parisians will once again choose their mayors, in a two-round election held on March 15th and 22nd – as in the rest of France. Tradition dictates that the incumbent would contend against the local leader of the opposition during the second round. Left against right, experience versus novelty.

The surprise election of Macron in 2017 and the subsequent rise of his party – La République en Marche (LREM) – has reconstructed the political landscape and changed this predicted scenario altogether.

After securing many of the votes of the moderate left during the presidential elections, Macron’s “centrist” line has gradually converted traditional supporters of the conservative party Les Républicains (LR) to his own political brand. In the last European elections, Parisian arrondissements that had been leaning right for decades – especially in the bourgeois districts west of the capital – have all placed the presidential party way ahead of its rivals. Overall, LREM won 33% of voters in the capital, compared to an abysmal 10% for the right-wing party.

The Parisian left has also suffered, marred by internal divisions and the growing irrelevance of the Socialist Party. Its candidate, Benoît Hamon, was relegated to the fifth position in the 2017 presidential elections. It has hardly recovered since. Many voters in the capital instead placed their confidence in the Green Party EELV (Europe Écologie – Les Verts), a list used to faring well at European elections.

The different movements making up Hidalgo’s coalition registered the following scores in the 2019 European vote: 20% for EELV, 8% for the Socialist Party, and 3% for the Communist Party. Its second position in the capital gave EELV new ambitions, which should considerably complicate Hidalgo’s path to reaching the second round of the election ahead with the widest possible margin.

Yet voters perceive local elections and the European ballot quite differently, and if the results of the latter are a relevant indication of the current political balance, the Paris mayoral race should prove no different. Mayor Anne Hidalgo remains a popular figure among French liberals, and EELV’s aspiration for success on its own remains far from certain. According to recent polls, if the election was to be held today, she would indeed rank first even with just 24% of the votes in the first round. Hidalgo’s list had reached 34% during the first round of her victorious run five years ago. The major question remains: who would the incumbent face in the second round?

Macron’s party, LREM, selected its mayoral candidate for Paris through a centralized nomination commission, with a jury of representatives interviewing the different applicants before taking a final decision. Half a dozen candidates contested in the campaign to convince the LREM officials, as well as the general opinion. After rallying a similar amount of their rivals, only two remained in the final weeks before the official decision.

The remainders were Benjamin Griveaux, a former government spokesperson who had the unofficial support of the party’s leadership (as well as President Macron’s), and Cédric Villani, a fanciful mathematics genius and laureate of the 2010 Fields Medal turned politician, who joined Macron’s campaign in 2017. Both are currently députés at the National Assembly, the lower chamber of the French parliament.

After a successful campaign and the day of the final decision looming, Villani started to catch up with the centrist party’s arch-favorite Griveaux. Polls indicated he stood a similar – and maybe even better – chance than his rival to win a hypothetical second round against the candidate of the left. However, this was not enough to convince the LREM commission, which made the nomination of the Paris MP official last July. This decision was predicted by most, but the enthusiasm and support for the mathematician ended up far stronger than expected.

Even though LREM candidates had pledged to support the winner of the designation process, the defeat had a bitter taste for Villani and his supporters. Worse was to come: shortly after his victory, embarrassing revelations tarnished Griveaux’ campaign after he was recorded insulting his former rivals, confirming his reputation as a self-confessed “connard arrogant”.

After considering the matter during the summer, Cédric Villani announced his candidacy on September 4th, stating he would run as an independent candidate and therefore without the support of the presidential party. Citing the example of Macron’s own political enterprise and his run outside of traditional parties back in 2017, he de facto divided the centrist forces trying to take the Paris city hall after nearly two decades of government by the left.

Despite threats from some of his LREM colleagues, and against the movement’s pre-established campaign rules, Villani has not been excluded from his party – strategically, such a decision may have cast him as a victim and brought his campaign the sympathy Griveaux’ seems to lack.

Hidalgo, who has yet to officially announce her candidacy for a second term, has enjoyed a significant advantage from the situation. The centrist candidates are now neck and neck, far behind the incumbent, with the official LREM candidate Benjamin Griveaux polling at 17%, a short lead over the now independent campaign of Cédric Villani at 15%.

The conservative party LR, headed by 7th arrondissement mayor Rachida Dati, is polling at 14% – compared to the 36% it scored in the first round of the 2014 elections, an indication of the damage inflicted to Parisian conservatives by Macron’s strategy. On the other side of the political landscape, the Green Party EELV reaches 13% in that same last poll. If the election was held today, Hidalgo’s coalition would probably end up facing whichever centrist candidate ranked ahead of the other in the first round of the vote. However things are not that simple: the Paris mayoral race consist in 17 different elections held in each arrondissement, in which more than two contenders can reach the second round if there is no absolute majority after the first ballot.

Politics is a sphere of unpredictability, and the Paris mayoral race proves no exception. There is a good chance one of the two centrist candidates will have to leave the race before the first round of the election is even held, sunk by mediocre polls or another decision from LREM’s national leadership. With Hidalgo yet to announce her official run for reelection following the release of her new book at the end of the month, the campaign is really just starting.


What about policies? Our next articles about the 2020 Paris elections will focus on the major local issues and the positions of the different candidates on different matters: housing, the environment, the homelessness and migrant crisis, culture, transportation, security concerns, urban policies, etc.




Illustration © Campagne de Cédric Villani / Ville de Paris / Campagne de Benjamin Griveaux

One thought on “The Paris Mayoral Election Explained”

  1. Since her election in 2014, Anne Hidalgo has stood out: the first woman to conquer the French capital is one of the most influential Socialist Party figures on the national stage. “She has never played the games of the political machinery. She has managed to maintain her freedom while remaining loyal to her political family,” a source among her in inner circle explained. After the landslide that President Emmanuel Macron’s upstart La Republique en Marche party enjoyed in Paris in the 2017 legislative elections – the fledgling LREM won 12 of the capital’s 18 National Assembly seats, virtually wiping out its Socialist lawmakers – the Socialist mayor of Paris today stands as a symbol of resistance to that ballot-box domination.

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