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A bizarre sex scandal rocks the French elections

Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo walk with police forces evacuating migrants early morning in Paris. (Photo by Julien Mattia/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images) - Credit: Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

JASON WALSH on an intriguing election for the city’s mayoralty… and a possible springboard to the presidency.

France goes to the polls next month in nationwide municipal elections. The most eye-catching of the contests is in Paris, where a bizarre sex scandal has pushed out a challenger, leaving incumbent mayor Anne Hidalgo likely to triumph – placing her in a strong position to run for higher office in the future.

French mayors are powerful, Paris most of all, and a mayoralty is a potential springboard to the presidency. Certainly, many believe that the socialist Hidalgo has her sights set on the Élysée, though for her part she has always denied having designs on the highest office in the land.

In any case, Paris is a key battleground in a febrile French political landscape – and the conflict is rather different from the recent left-wing revolts of the unions and gilets jaunes.

If French president Emmanuel Macron has a base – and it is beginning to look as though his popularity is fragmenting as rapidly as it came together – then it is in Paris. The capital voted for him in large numbers in 2017: he won 34% of ballots in the first round of the presidential election and 90% in the second, when he faced-off against Marine Le Pen.

It is bad news for Macron, then, that the Socialist Party, still in crisis following the drubbing he delivered, is ahead in the polls with Hidalgo seeking to return to office on the basis of her own work rather than party loyalty.

Socialists building municipal redoubts against national winds of change is nothing new, of course: think Ken Livingstone in London under Thatcher, Militant Labour in Liverpool or even Bernie Sanders in Burlington, Vermont. Hidalgo is not universally popular, though.

Filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet, director of The City of Lost Children and Delicatessen, made waves in 2019 saying “Paris is too ugly”. Jeunet complained he could not make a sequel to his acclaimed love story Amelie, in many ways a love letter to the city itself, because it had lost its charm due to the mayor’s massive renovation works.

“There are building sites everywhere,” he complained.

Many Parisians, tired of noise, dust, congestion, and ugly green and grey steel barriers, agreed. Yet with the Olympic games scheduled for 2024 more disruption is guaranteed.

Another controversial move was banning traffic from long portions of the quays of the Seine. Popular with those who can now stroll, run and jog along the river, it had the unintended consequence of increasing traffic and pollution elsewhere, with suburban commuters forced into streets built for horses and carts.

More popular is her support for running the metro 24 hours a day. How popular this would prove with unions remains to be seen though, and the stakes are high: Paris ground to a halt in December and January as they flexed their muscles against the government’s planned pension reforms. The message was clear: close the metro and you close Paris. Still, metro hours have been extended on a trial basis.

Her long-term ambitions include a total ban on cars, making all public transport free, 50/50 male-female police recruitment, and allowing local areas to restrict short-term rentals such as Airbnb.

Plans to merge the first four arrondissements into one mega burgh, an act that would have not only have been unpopular with civil servants but also given her an electoral edge over her rivals, have been watered down.

Macron’s hopes to take the city took a beating last week when his candidate, Benjamin Griveaux, withdrew after becoming embroiled in a sex scandal. Video footage of male genitalia, apparently sent by the married Griveaux to an alleged lover, was leaked.

“My family does not deserve this. No one, fundamentally, should be subjected to such violence,” he told reporters.

Griveaux is now living under police protection following alleged threats, details of which have not been released.

The leaker, Russian artist Petr Pavlensky, said he exposed Griveaux because the politician preaches “family values”.

“It doesn’t bother me whatever sexuality they have, they can even f**k animals, no problem, but they have to be honest,” he said.

For many, Griveaux’s error hardly constitutes much of a scandal, but Pavlensky’s bizarre history means le sextape has taken on a life of its own. A performance artist whose body is often his own subject, much in the mould of French body artist Orlan though with a political bent, Pavlensky is a Russian exile who won asylum in France after facing political pressure at home.

In 2012 he sewed his lips shut in support of fellow performance artists Pussy Riot. In 2013 he nailed his scrotum to the ground in Moscow’s Red Square. In 2019 he was convicted of setting fire to the front of the former offices of the French central bank.

Pavlensky claims he plans to launch a “political porn” website he says will expose the hypocrisies of politicians. The controversy doesn’t end there, though: left-wing investigative web site Mediapart claims Pavlensky has been wanted since January in connection with “acts of wilful violence with a weapon” following two alleged knife crimes at a New Year’s Eve party.

He is reported to have handed himself in to police, telling Mediapart the alleged victims were accomplices in a police conspiracy against him.

With Griveaux out of the race, Macron’s La République en Marche (LREM) party, despite fielding medical consultant and health minister Agnès Buzyn as his replacement, is doomed. Hidalgo is now all but guaranteed victory, something that would bring cheer to the decimated ranks of the Socialists.

First elected in 2014, three years before Macron rewrote France’s electoral map, Hidalgo’s fortunes have waxed and waned with the times. In 2018 her satisfaction rating dropped from 52% to 42%. This year Hidalgo moved her candidacy from the quiet 15th arrondissement on Paris’s left bank to the hip and cool ‘bobo’ (bourgeois bohemian) Bastille in the 11th arrondissement in the east. One magazine described her as “queen of the bobos”.

The Spanish-born Hidalgo is in some senses a classic French centre-left politician: a noted atheist, married to fellow politician Jean-Marc Germain, with a master’s degree in trade unionism and a family history on the republican side of the Spanish Civil War. She has worked in both the public and private sectors (something American commentator Lewis Lapham once noted as an essential establishment credential anyone seeking for a career in politics in the US). Her appeal, like that of many centre-left politicians in recent decades, is to the affluent and the precarious, rather than the traditional working class or the truly rich. For now, she leads the pack with 23% support in the most recent poll. Conservative candidate Rachida Dati of the Republicans is in second place at 20%.

In fact Paris doesn’t have just one mayor, it has one for each of the spiral of 20 arrondissements, as well as one, currently Hidalgo, overseeing the city as a whole.

In addition, the mayor of Paris also holds the position of president of the métropole of Grand Paris, a job that covers the somewhat notional ‘Grand Paris’, an attempt to integrate the urban core of Paris with its sprawling suburbs.

King Louis XIV famously tore down the walls of Paris as a show of strength: unlike other European monarchs, he was saying, I have no fear of either foreign invasion or being strung up by the people. To this day, though, the region is divided between the city proper and the outlying areas with the orbital motorway, the périphérique, as effective a barrier as any medieval wall. (Hidalgo says she will transform the ring road into a park by 2024).

Not all of the banlieues are the grey wastelands of unemployment and street violence of the popular imagination, populated by the angry children of immigrants walled into tower blocks. Once impoverished Montreuil, for instance, is now a haven for artists and hipsters, Vincennes and Versailles are, and always were, as bourgeois as west Paris, while many others, such as Saint-Germain-en-Laye, are pretty and well connected.

Nonetheless public transport is spotty in many – a fact underscored by the recent strikes that hammered the working and middle classes priced out of Paris but had little impact on wealthy urbanites – and the architecture and planning makes it clear just what is Paris and what is not.

If Paris is ever to come to terms with what it is – a tourist trap, a giant eco village, a finance hub, a millionaires’ playground or a working city for everyone – then the mayor will have more say than most.

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