Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo threw her hat in the ring for France's 2022 presidential election on Sunday in Rouen. Her announcement brought an end to months of speculation that she would seek the Socialist nomination - and to years of assurances from Hidalgo herself that Paris City Hall wouldn't serve as a springboard for the country's top job.
The 62-year-old Hidalgo, who won re-election to a second term as Paris mayor last year, has been both applauded and vilified for her eco-minded administration of the French capital, pushing the envelope as she has pushed motorists out of the city centre in favour of cycling lanes and green spaces.
In the global public eye as Paris mayor, Hidalgo's tenure has spanned a period of exceptional challenges for the city: a devastating series of terror attacks in 2015, fiery anti-government Yellow Vest protests, the disastrous 2019 inferno at Notre-Dame Cathedral, a Covid-19 pandemic all the more fearsome to a world tourism capital. There have also been glittering triumphs: the COP 21 summit that spawned the Paris Climate Accords in 2015 and the city's successful bid to host the 2024 Olympic Games. Hidalgo most recently took the world stage in Japan, where she accepted the Olympic and Paralympic flags at Tokyo 2020's closing ceremonies.
A self-styled social-democrat, Hidalgo officially enters France's presidential fray as one of the most instantly recognisable contenders in a fractured field of disparate leftists. Each is aspiring to upend months of persistent polling and punditry that has shown next April's contest as likeliest to play out to the right of France's political centre. Meanwhile, the dream some leftists harbour of seeing a single left-wing nominee contend for power appears hazier by the day.
While incumbent centrist Emmanuel Macron, who has yet to officially declare his bid for re-election, and far-right leader Marine Le Pen have long topped opinion surveys ahead of the 2022 vote with first-round voting intentions in the mid-20s, conservative Les Republicains candidates have persistently stood as the closest third man (or woman) in waiting. In speculative polling, meanwhile, Hidalgo has been well back at 7 to 9 percent.
But before she can contemplate weighing in on the ultimate race, Hidalgo must first win the Socialist nomination. Still smarting from a devastating rout in 2017 when party nominee Benoît Hamon managed only 6.36 percent of the first-round vote to finish fifth, the Socialist Party has promised to choose its candidate via an internal vote of some 50,000 electors to be held sometime after its September 17-18 party convention.
To burnish her appeal beyond the capital's Peripherique ring road and shed any association with a Paris elite, Hidalgo has chosen to announce her run in the Normandy city of Rouen. The move comes after a spring and summer spent, to the extent Covid-19 allowed it, visiting locations around the country to prepare for the bid ahead.
Indeed, as the Andalucia-born Hidalgo tells it, the Paris elite tag is a short-sighted one. After all, she says, she "made the climb" to the capital "for work, like many Parisians".
Family fled Franco's Spain
"I was born in Spain to an electrician dad and seamstress mum," she told Agence France-Presse. Born Ana Maria Hidalgo Aleu in San Fernando near Cadiz in 1959, she was two-and-a-half when her family moved to a working-class district of Lyon. Naturalised with her family in 1973, 14-year-old Ana officially took on the Gallicised given name Anne.
"I'm not one of these people who are born into the centres of power," she said. "I had the opportunity to benefit from this republican promise... this real equality through school."
"Today, I note with sadness that if I were arriving in France today, in the same conditions, I wouldn't have the same opportunities," she said, crediting that observation with motivating her bid for the presidency.
Hidalgo wouldn't be the first Paris mayor to make the leap directly from running the French capital to running the country. Former president Jacques Chirac achieved the feat in 1995, moving across town to the Elysee Palace after 17 years at Paris City Hall. Chirac's CV had otherwise prepared him for France's highest office; the conservative had previously served in parliament, in the cabinet, and twice as prime minister - including two years in the 1980s when he hung on to his job as Paris mayor even while heading the country's government.
But Hidalgo is confident that her own resume equips her well for the top job. After all, the French capital, with its annual budget upwards of €10 billion and some 50,000 personnel, is a massive administrative machine. "There aren't a lot of candidates with management experience at this level," she has said.
A health and safety inspector by trade, Hidalgo worked in the cabinet of Employment Minister Martine Aubry between 1997 to 2002, when Aubry was responsible for deploying France's then-controversial 35-hour workweek.
Hidalgo was elected to Paris city council in 2001. Quickly named first deputy to Socialist mayor Bertrand Delanöe, she stood in for her boss as early as 2002 after Delanoë was stabbed by a homophobic assailant during the city's Nuit Blanche festivities.
After two terms as Delanöe's right-hand-woman and largely in his shadow, Hidalgo succeeded him as mayor in 2014. Then, laying waste to election forecasts that saw her unpopularity costing her re-election, Hidalgo won again in 2020, her Socialists governing jointly with greens, communists and other leftists.
As mayor, Hidalgo has shepherded controversial environmental policies to fruition, including pedestrianising the Seine riverside highway that had served as temporary respite from cars during the annual Paris Plages event launched under Delanoë.
Last year, she took advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to redouble her efforts to lay down new bicycle paths throughout the city. Hidalgo's City Hall recently dropped speed limits to 30km/h Paris-wide, hit non-electric scooters and motorcycles with dissuasive parking charges, and announced a ban on diesel vehicles in Paris by 2024.
She has been vilified for her troubles by Paris drivers - as well as the greater Paris area motorists who use the capital's roads but don't have a say at the ballot box in its choice of mayor. Critics also lambaste what they view as the corollary of Hidalgo's green vision for Paris: a decline in the City of Light's aesthetic appeal. The hashtag #saccageparis (wreck Paris) has become a watchword for urban blight on social media, most often accompanied by photos of broken-down Paris street furniture, weed-ravaged planters, neglected jumbles of e-scooters or general sidewalk filth.
The disgruntled greater Paris suburbanites who have rued her rule in vain - and tens of millions of French voters besides - could finally get their say as Hidalgo sets her sights on national office pledging to make "ecological transition, the transformation of our economic and energy model" a cornerstone of her presidential campaign.
"I have been caricatured as 'anti-car' when I'm actually anti-pollution," she writes in her forthcoming book "Une femme francaise" (A French woman), to be released next Wednesday.
Hidalgo's ecological bent is catching - at the very least within her own family. The mother of three's youngest, Arthur - a competitive swimmer who became the youngest person to swim across the Channel in 2018 aged 16 - this summer swam the 784km length of the Seine to raise awareness about water pollution. The mayor was on hand, along with the media, to embrace her son on the riverbank during his journey's Paris leg on July 3.
Hidalgo's strategically timed new book will also address priorities beyond those she has had the means to address in her mayoral role. In one passage AFP excerpted on Friday, for example, Hidalgo calls for a "great movement to raise salaries" in the education sector, deeming it "possible, over the course of a five-year term, to at least double the pay of everyone who has contact with pupils. Or, to start with, to align new teachers' starting salary with the median salary of Master's Degree holders," she writes.
That plan is not cheap, concedes Hidalgo - who weathered flak at Paris City Hall for her fiscal management at the municipal level - but aspiring Socialist nominee "takes responsibility for it". "It's the price to pay to transform schooling and reduce the number of 'dropouts'," she argues.
No stranger to criticism, Hidalgo has also been reproached for her temperament, which she once said is "like my father's - explosive". But she is spirited about the fault-finding, suggesting it roots in sexism. "I know the gap that exists between who I am really and how I am perceived," she wrote in her previous book, 2018's "Respirer" (Breathing). "A man's authority becomes a woman's authoritarianism," Hidalgo argued, three years before launching her run to become France's first woman presidente.