Paris’s Mayor Anne Hidalgo Has A Very Big Summer

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On International Women’s Day this year, March 8, Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris since 2014, convened a conference at the magnificent 19th-​century Hôtel de Ville under the title question: “A Woman = A Man? A Question of Power.” Dressed in a discreetly chic, navy dress with gold buttons, Hidalgo was in her element, addressing an audience of fellow feminists, social justice advocates, and socialist politicians. “You are all examples!” she said, welcoming them. “You have been targeted, judged…but you continue the struggle with a force, a humility.” She lamented the state of women’s rights all over the world, particularly in Afghanistan and Iran, and railed at insidious sexism closer to home. “Women in power are analyzed and décortiquées,” she said, using a verb for peeling shrimp that also means dissected, scrutinized. “Politics is hard for everyone,” she continued, to applause, “but it is harder for women.”

Other distinguished speakers echoed her frustration. Michelle Bachelet, former president of Chile, said, “People like Anne Hidalgo and I are criticized for being women, called authoritarian for making decisions—this is our job!” And Dilma Rousseff, former president of Brazil, described how she had been deposed by an online trolling campaign accusing her of corruption—charges of which she has since been acquitted. Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian human rights lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize winner, told me afterward, “I do believe it’s very important to have more women in all levels of political activity and leadership.” Karen Bass, mayor of Los Angeles, was impressed: “If I had to capture Anne Hidalgo with one word,” she told me coming offstage, “it would be bold.”

I met Anne Hidalgo in the Hôtel de Ville in early March. Her office is famously larger than the president’s in the Élysée Palace and is arrived at by ascending a marble staircase in a building so voluminous and gilded and mirrored, with statues in alcoves and ceilings painted with goddesses and the tenet of the republic—Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité—that there is nothing to do but stand dumbstruck with Cinderella awe at the history and grandeur of France’s Belle Époque.

The mayor of Paris is responsible for a little over two million inhabitants, a budget of 10 billion euros, and a municipal workforce of more than 50,000. Her life veers between global issues and social ills; ceremonial duties and petty scandals; and sudden crises and the quotidian of bureaucratic officialdom.

At the beginning of the year, among other things: Hidalgo organized a referendum over the increase of parking fees for larger cars; dealt with a strike that closed the Eiffel Tower to tourists; parried the préfet de police’s resistance to her plans to pedestrianize the Place du Trocadéro; and celebrated the senate passing an amendment to enshrine a woman’s right to abortion. She also had to contend with her political rival, Rachida Dati, being appointed minister of culture, and with protesting farmers trying to block the Champs-​Élysées. She attended a Ramadan feast at Paris’s Grand Mosque and took shelter during an air-raid alert on a visit to Kyiv, all while gearing up to host this summer’s Olympic Games and trying to work out security for the opening ceremony, planned as a flotilla of barges carrying athletes up the Seine.

Hidalgo, a keen volleyball player in her youth, has overseen much of the preparations, but the inevitable controversies over last-​minute details were accompanied by headlines and Parisians muttering that the Games would be a mess and it would be better to leave town for the duration.

In addition, Hidalgo was under personal investigation. The day before our meeting, the Hôtel de Ville was raided by the national financial prosecutor’s office, following allegations that Hidalgo misused public funds when she went to Tahiti in October to see the Olympic surfing venue there and afterward made a private visit to her daughter, who lives on a nearby island.

I suggested it had been a difficult week. Hidalgo said, “It was nothing…. Every year or two years, people try to invent something. The justice wanted to have clarification; we gave them all the documents.” Hidalgo has a reputation for moral certitude; while her critics angled after hypocrisy, commentators I spoke to didn’t think the allegations were very serious.

At her request, our interview was in English. Hidalgo spoke in broad strokes, cheerfully answering some questions, more careful with others. In conversation she is relaxed and warm, rolling her eyes at the absurdities of political life. Intimates speak of her vivacity and indefatigable enthusiasm. But after 20 years of being in the public eye—​accountable, questioned, attacked—​she has become, understandably, more guarded. French journalists complain she has a “langue du bois”—a wooden tongue—and tends to remain safely on message. I have a sense that she is more introverted than her profession would suggest. Hidalgo’s older sister, Mary Hidalgo, told me, “I think she’s more reserved on a private level than she is publicly.”

“Yes, it’s difficult to be mayor,” Hidalgo said. “The mayor of Paris is a big position, and I am the first woman [to occupy it]. But I have a vision. It’s not enough to just be here and say, ‘Oh my God, it’s so difficult because I’m a woman!’ And I’m always fighting against opponents.”

And here’s the paradox: Hidalgo is a progressive politician with an environmental agenda who has transformed Paris into a city of cycle lanes, open pedestrianized spaces, and grassy verges. Car numbers and air pollution are down more than 40 percent from a decade ago; there are now 870 miles of cycle lanes in Paris, compared to some 125 in 2001. She was on the ground coordinating the response to the Islamist terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan concert hall in 2015, as well as the fire that gutted Notre-Dame cathedral in 2019; and she defied her government’s policy and unilaterally distributed face masks during the COVID pandemic. But mention her name to Parisians, and the response is often: “Hidalgo? Everyone hates her!”

“Okay,” Hidalgo told me, inured to the slings and arrows. “It’s a life.”

Ana María Hidalgo Aleu was born in 1959 in southern Spain. Her grandfather fled to France during the Spanish Civil War, and, on his return, was condemned to death under the Franco regime; her father grew up displaced, without proper education. In the early 1960s he moved to France, finding work in a factory, and settled his young family in a working-​class neighborhood of Lyon, where Hidalgo and her sister Mary grew up. Hidalgo got good grades at school, studied social law at university in Lyon, fell in love, and got married to her first husband, Philippe Jantet, a fellow student and political activist, when she was just 20, absorbing, along with the lessons of her family’s sacrifice and survival, the leftist radicalism and feminism of the early ’70s.

She began her career as a labor inspector, learning how to hold her own in the all-male environments of factories and mines, and with condescending local politicians. It was her head-down determination that would carry her upward as she moved to Paris in the early 1980s and became involved in vocational policymaking, and later in the Socialist Party through the 1990s.

“I think my sister has always been very driven,” Mary told me. “I think nothing would ever stop her; [not] male sexism, even back then.”

Hidalgo met her second and current husband, Jean-Marc Germain—seven years her junior, a studious technocrat, and also from Lyon—in the late ’90s, when they were both working at the Ministry of Labour.

“She was in charge of vocational training, and I was in charge of employment,” Germain told me over lunch in a bistro close to their home in the comfortably bourgeois 15th arrondissement. He was seduced, he said, by her positivity and her strength. He recalled that only a few days after she started, Hidalgo had to replace the minister at an important event. “It was on the 29th August.”

“You remember the date!” I said.

“Yes,” he smiled, “I remember the date and I remember her speech.”

Hidalgo had two children, Matthieu, and Elsa, born in the 1980s, but she and Jantet grew apart and divorced in 1995. Hidalgo became pregnant with her third child with Germain, in the last months of her campaign to be elected deputy mayor in 2001. (They were married in 2004.) It was not an easy campaign; even from the beginning Hidalgo was up against a better-connected candidate in a Socialist Party primary. It was, Germain said, her “first improbable victory.… Nothing was given to her. Never. In [every] step of her career it was always the same way. ‘Elle fonce,’ as they say in French”—she goes for it.

When Arthur was born in December 2001, Hidalgo took no maternity leave. “Even worse than that,” Germain told me: The evening before Arthur’s birth, she stayed late waiting for a party vote. “Even in the last stages of her pregnancy, she was making politics.” Hidalgo told me that juggling the job of deputy mayor and motherhood had been difficult, although French subsidized childcare helped. “I was running all day. But it was a choice. For me it was very important to be independent; it was not up for discussion. And a lot of women said to me, ‘You are demonstrating that it is possible to be pregnant and to be a political woman.’  ”

When I asked Hidalgo to describe French politics with three adjectives, she laughingly threw up her hands: “Confused! Grand confusion!” Then she added in French, “Grande agressivité.” That aggressive atmosphere, subject as it is to a kind of pettiness, she said, “risked democracy” and suggested “little interest in public issues.”

Indeed, Hidalgo’s Socialist Party has been a soap opera of factions, schisms, and sexy scandals for more than a decade. (François Hollande and his former longtime partner Ségolène Royal, with whom he had four children, both vied for the presidency; she lost in 2007; he won in 2012 and had his affairs splashed all over the press. The current president, Emmanuel Macron, split with his political mentor Hollande and set up his own party, taking many from the Socialists, including members of Hidalgo’s team at the Hôtel de Ville, with him.) Since being elected mayor in 2014, Hidalgo has had to navigate party ruptures and rumors, and contend with the coruscations of Parisian politics (the city is divided into 20 arrondissements, or districts, almost all with their own mayor and town hall), while balancing the authority of the Hôtel de Ville against overlapping regional and national jurisdictions.

“She’s a woman who is always moving forward,” her husband told me. “It’s like when you’re cycling; if you don’t pedal, you fall off.”

It’s an apt metaphor; in many ways Hidalgo’s tenure as mayor has been defined by bike lanes.

Right from the start, Hidalgo declared a war on traffic in Paris, announcing a ban on diesel cars by 2020 (now slated for next year, 2025) and all gas-driven cars by 2030. Overcoming years of opposition (and a court order), she managed to remove traffic from the right bank of the Seine, turning it into a pleasant riverside track; in the summer there are cafés and deck chairs. Elsewhere, squares and markets have been pedestrianized and traffic has been barred from streets outside several hundred schools so that children can play.

Squeezed into narrower lanes, traffic congestion in Paris has gotten worse. The car industry, drivers, and people who live beyond the constant traffic jams of the Périphérique, or ring road, are apoplectic. Hidalgo has been condemned as a Stalinist, a Khmer Vert (“green”), and a bohemian ​bourgeois who is Disney-fying Paris.

They say all politics is local; but for many Parisians it has been reduced to the small patch of sidewalk outside their front door. According to naysayers, the city has become dirty and messy and full of rats. Since the pandemic, there have been garbage strikes and problems with staffing levels for street cleaners. Ongoing infrastructure refurbishment of gas and water pipes mean jackhammers and dug-up streets. Critics say Hidalgo’s plans for oases of urban forests or planting gardens on rooftops are impractical; her property tax hike last year of 52 percent and the city’s debt burden (which has more than doubled on her watch, although exact figures are in dispute) suggest she’s spending too much money on végétalisation. Greater ire, ratcheting to near hysteria, has been reserved for Hidalgo’s efforts to remove the circular metal grills from the base of trees and plant the small areas with grass and flowers. Under the hashtag #SaccageParis (“wrecking Paris”), angry Parisians post photos of unsightly roadworks and the base of trees with muddy puddles and scraggly tufts of grass strewn with cigarette butts, trash, and dog turds.

While the wealthier cadres gripe on the Left Bank, Hidalgo’s support is anchored in working-class neighborhoods, where her efforts to maintain the city’s social and economic fabric, despite the inevitable march of gentrification, has been focused. A quarter of Parisians now live in social housing, up from 13 percent in the late ’90s. Hidalgo has tried to open up Paris, redesigning several major intersections, planting trees, and paving over traffic lanes with cycle paths and pedestrian plazas. Elsewhere, there are new basketball courts and sidewalks painted with children’s games and a project that gives seniors access to schoolyards on weekends. During the Olympics, the Trocadéro Gardens at the foot of the Eiffel Tower will be turned into the Champions Park. And Paris sounds very different these days; stand on the Rue de Rivoli, one of the main thoroughfares of the city, where private cars are now banned, and it’s quiet, with only the whiz of bicycles and whoosh of electric buses going by.

“I think that my convictions, my policies, my actions, communicate best what I do as mayor,” Hidalgo told me. “I understand people in the newspapers talk, talk, talk, and…say the mayor of Paris is like a devil. But these are not the Parisians who are living in Paris and who voted for me.”

In 2020 she won a second term in a tight race against Dati, also a woman from an immigrant family. But in 2022, when Hidalgo ran for president (having said in her mayoral campaign that she wouldn’t), she received a humiliating 1.75 percent of the vote.

“It was difficult,” Hidalgo said of that defeat. “I carried the flag to explain the conviction of social democracy. Okay, no one heard what I said in the campaign, but I said it.” She noted that she and Valérie Pécresse, another female presidential candidate, had both been treated badly by the press. “It was, ‘She doesn’t know how to talk, she doesn’t have the shoulders, she’s not going to last the road, she’s going to crack up.’ The whole campaign, it was never about the ideas. It was always about us.”

Hidalgo is not the only female politician to complain of a double standard in the public discourse. She’s not wrong, but as one of her (female) critics said to me, “It’s true that she suffers attacks that are sexist, but at the same time, she capitalizes a lot on the fact she is a woman. She can’t be an international rock star and at the same time a victim of sexism.”

I asked Hidalgo how she coped with the attacks against her. “You need to be objective,” she said. “You need to be rational.… And I’m very strong, and I want to be on the right side of this story.”

Her detractors say she is inflexible, that she never gives an inch and freezes out people who disagree with her. Hidalgo admitted she tends to act quickly, “because I am combative. We all have our faults. You have to listen, but I differentiate between people who criticize what I do because I could do better (and I must do better), and those who criticize what I do because they want to destroy me.”

Hidalgo is often described as “iron” or “steel” or “titanium.” “I think she’s built herself a pretty good armor,” her sister Mary told me. Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City, media mogul, and philanthropist, who saw Hidalgo the day after the Bataclan attacks, shaken and unslept, but talking to people, “calmly, confidently, honestly, and from the heart,” called it “tenacity.” In an email, he wrote, “Change is always hard, and it often takes a while for the public to come around…. [Hidalgo] never shies away from doing the right thing, even if it’s unpopular.”

It’s a life shaped by battles. The fight to create bike lanes or local gardens or a percentage of social housing in new developments is, for Hidalgo, the local part of a global mission for social climate justice. She has found an international platform among the world’s big-city mayors. More widely, she worries about the appeal of the “extreme right,” and the way foreign governments are able to manipulate social media. Cities, “resistant” and “resilient,” she believes, can pave the way, politically and environmentally.

“Big cities are progressive places, very mixed, very diverse, with women, LGBT people, with all the social classes,” said Hidalgo. “Paris is a very old city, with museums, beautiful buildings, et cetera.… We have demonstrated that you can be an old city, engaged with human rights, and be very creative in the digital economy, as well as in art, in fashion.”

She’s proud to point out that this summer’s Games will be the most environmentally conscious to date. Most events will be staged in existing venues. “The stadium is the city,” Hidalgo told me. Beach volleyball and blind football will take place in front of the Eiffel Tower; BMX freestyle and skateboarding in the Place de la Concorde. The building projects—including a new basketball arena that will help regenerate a northern Paris neighborhood, and an athletes village that will be partly turned over to social housing after the Games—were delivered on time and pretty much within budget. Meanwhile (at vast cost), the Seine is being cleaned up and triathletes are to set off from the Beaux Arts Alexandre III bridge. After a century-​long prohibition, Hidalgo hopes that Parisians can swim in the Seine after the Games.

“She never stops,” Germain told me. Except, he said, in the evenings when she calls her children, now all grown, and her mother, age 93, who has retired to southern Spain.

“I am mayor, but I am a woman, I am a mother, a grandmother,” Hidalgo told me. “I love life. I love to walk in the mountains. I love to swim. It’s not very easy to live a life that is not so normal. I try to be normal. I do the shopping myself.”

TRUE BLUE
Mayor Hidalgo with her husband, Jean-Marc Germain, in 2023. Photograph by Gabriel Legrand.

Germain laughed when I asked him if his wife likes to cook. “The children always tease her,” he said, “because when she was working and had two [young] children, she was very tired and had little time to make food, and on Sunday she tended to make the same dish, her famous filet de flétan au four, roasted halibut.”

Matthieu is a lawyer in Paris; Elsa, an engineer, lives with her family in the South Pacific. Arthur, 22, a self-described “adventurer, explorer, utopian,” has appeared on a survivalist reality TV show, and swum the English Channel and the length of the Seine. He espouses a different, more grassroots, approach to environmentalism than his mother. “When he was younger, it was two separate worlds,” his father told me. “Now I would daresay we have the same goals.… Anne is very proud of him, and Arthur is proud of his mother.”

Hidalgo, naturally reticent, keeps her family life private. “For example, we never go out to dinner, or maybe once a year,” Germain told me. He has forged his own political career (he’s running to be elected to the European Parliament) and doesn’t accompany his wife to public functions, but is very much the man behind the woman. “She’s got a happy marriage,” Mary told me. “She’s got a lot of support there.”

When I asked her husband and her sister what made Hidalgo happiest, they both gave the same answer as Hidalgo herself: her work. “She’s always happy with what she’s doing,” said Germain. “When she comes home, she takes an hour to talk about the extraordinary people she met that day, whether it’s a baker or Barack Obama.”

Hidalgo has remained publicly coy about her plans to run for a third term as mayor. She told me her ambition was to continue to work on climate change and social issues. She pointed to a large artwork in her office, depicting two figures holding a flower rising from a barbed-​wire stalk and an open book with the words: “The Future Is Unwritten.”

“I want to be free—very free!” she said.

“Free of what?” I asked, but she only laughed instead of answering.

Produced by AL Studio; Set Design: Mary Howard; Poster: Shepard Fairey (OBEY), Knowledge + Action + Power.

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