BLOIS, France — French Socialists recently gathered in the Loire Valley for a weekend of debate that has become the virtual virtual anointing of Anne Hidalgo, the charismatic mayor of Paris, as the candidate for next year’s presidential election.
Gathered in the courtyard of the Chateau de Blois, several speakers addressed Hidalgo to say that they dreamed of a “madame la Président”, emphasizing the last syllable accented with an “and” that denotes the female form. So far, the Fifth Republic has had eight male presidents in six decades.
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That’s not the only stat accumulated against 62-year-old Hidalgo, who launched his candidacy on Sunday.
“Today I’m ready. So I humbly decided to be a candidate for the Presidency of the French Republic to offer a future to our children, all children,” she said. “We must reinvent our French model, weakened by multiple crises.
Most polls show that the French left, split between socialists, ecologists and far-left parties, has less than 30% of the vote in a France that moves to the right. The once proud “gauche” [esquerda em francês] is in tatters.
Her latest book, “A French Woman”, will be published on September 15th. I asked Hidalgo when she would announce her candidacy.
“I believe in solid foundations and I’m working on it,” said Hidalgo. “If the foundation is solid, the house rises.
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It is unclear whether Hidalgo’s candidacy can galvanize the left and make room for an election in which Emmanuel Macron, the center president, and Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate, remain favorites.
The daughter of poor Spanish immigrants, a product of the now widely questioned French model of integration, and an environmentalist whose pro-bicycle and anti-car policies have earned her equal adulation and disgust, Hidalgo has international influence and recognition.
Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York, is a friend. She is also close to former president Lula, who welcomed her in February 2020 to grant her the title of honorary citizen in Paris. Months earlier, Hidalgo had opened a garden in honor of Brazilian politician and human rights activist Marielle Franco, who was murdered in 2018.
In the provinces, however, it is relatively unknown. The feeling of “la France profonde”, or the rural soul of the country, is an important credential for any candidate. Jacques Chirac, who was first mayor of Paris and later president, has made much of his connections with the Corrèze region in the southwest of the country.
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Carole Delga, the popular socialist president of the Occitania region, called Hidalgo, who has been mayor of Paris since 2014, “a solid captain” of the left. Olivier Faure, the leader of the Socialist Party tasked with rebuilding it after a humiliating defeat in the 2017 presidential election, has made it clear that Hidalgo is his choice. He urged the crowd in Blois to recall the “1981 fervor” that brought François Mitterrand and the left to power for the first time in the Fifth Republic.
Division and internal divergences
But, just eight months before the April 2022 election, the left will need a sudden surge of enthusiasm and unity if it is to stand any chance of victory. Unsure of how to deal with France’s concerns about security and immigration, and facing a generational rift over the identity issue, the left’s disorganization allowed Macron to lean to the right in search of votes.
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“Division is a loss,” said Benoît Hamon, who got just 6.36% of the vote as the Socialist Party candidate in 2017. “We won’t be in the second round of presidential elections if there isn’t a single leftist candidate.
Not everyone agrees. They include Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the far left of França Insubmissa; some green leaders like Yannick Jadot and Eric Piolle; and Socialists angry at what they see as efforts to announce Hidalgo ahead of the party’s primaries, which start on Sept. 18. So far, no one has shown much inclination to walk away from the dispute.
The Greens were furious when Faure, the socialist leader, suggested they had an electoral “roof” that would make any environmentalist presidential candidate ineligible.
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As François Hollande, the former socialist president, recently said: “It is not unity that creates power, it is power that creates unity.” For now, the left seems to lack the impetus or conviction to achieve more power. Hence, it seems, the socialist impulse to invest in Hidalgo and change this panorama.
“We’re all part of the same family,” said Piolle, mayor of Grenoble and potential presidential candidate. — But the climate crisis and issues of identity have driven us away.
The dispute reached its limit on a number of issues, including the decision by a French student union to hold “unmixed” meetings so that specific groups — blacks or Muslims, for example — could express their opinions.
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Mélenchon, the leader of the far left, saw no problem. Julien Bayou, national secretary of the Green Party, called the meetings “useful and necessary”. But Manuel Valls, former socialist prime minister, told Europe 1 radio that “when you organize racialized meetings, you legitimize the concept of race, and that is unacceptable.”
Danièle Obono, a black lawmaker from Unsubmissive France, said Valls was “an absolute traitor” to the left.
“French secularism is something that must be debated,” he said, referring to the French secular model.
In Blois, Hidalgo clearly showed what the central themes of an eventual campaign will be: the urgency of a transformation that generates jobs to face climate change and the fight against a degree of “inequality that leads people to lose faith in the institutions of the Republic ”.
“A child today wouldn’t have the same chances I had,” he said.
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Hélène le Roux, a civil servant, has mixed feelings about Hidalgo.
— I like the idea of the left being represented by a woman in a country that is still very paternalistic and sexist. But I’m not sure she has a political presence across the country, and her image is center-left.
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If the left’s challenges seem daunting, they may not be insurmountable. Eight months before the 2017 election, Macron’s chances looked remote. Hidalgo, allied with the Greens, defeated a candidate from Macron’s party to be re-elected in Paris in 2020.
The long-running Covid-19 pandemic and the economic problems that accompany it appear to have created greater interest in a strong state in Europe and the United States. Support for social solidarity over unrestricted global capitalism is growing. Olaf Scholz, the Social Democratic candidate, is one of the leading candidates in this month’s German elections. In the French regional elections in June, the Socialists performed well.
Even so, “France today is completely on the right,” said Philippe Labro, author and political scientist.
— Terrorism, insecurity, fear and the perception of rampant immigration have pushed the country in that direction. The left didn’t have a clear answer, neither Hidalgo nor anyone else.
The Chateau de Blois is notable in French history because it was there that, in 1429, Joan of Arc received a blessing before defeating the English at Orleans. Her name comes to the fore, of course, as French socialists seem willing to put their faith in a woman who faces a difficult campaign and unlikely statistics.