Paris Poised To Elect City Of Light's First Female Mayor

Two women are leading the race to be the next mayor of Paris — but the contest between them is as much about class and gender politics as local government.

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Voters in Paris go to the polls Sunday to elect a new mayor. And for the first time in its long history, the city will have a woman at the helm. Despite the historical significance, the race has failed to spark much enthusiasm among voters. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley has more.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: On a warm spring-ish afternoon, Socialist candidate for mayor Anne Hidalgo is out in Paris' bourgeois 16th Arrondissement to support a public housing project. Fifty-four-year-old Hidalgo is the protege and deputy of current Socialist Mayor Bertrand Delanoe who is stepping down after 14 years. Hidalgo says she plans to follow his line, pushing for a greener and fairer city.

ANNE HIDALGO: (Speaking French)

BEARDSLEY: I think Paris can be a world capital and also have room for people of all kinds to live here, she says. I support social diversity in our city. Despite the fact that public housing is not very popular in this neighborhood, only a gaggle of reporters bother to show up for the campaign event.

NATHALIE KOSCIUSKO-MORIZET: (Speaking French)

BEARDSLEY: Across town Hidalgo's 40-year-old adversary, conservative Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, is giving a press conference. She says Paris needs a new direction.

KOSCIUSKO-MORIZET: Paris is slightly declining. This is my point of view and the point of view of so many people leaving here. Too many young people willing to leave Paris and build a life elsewhere, especially in London.

BEARDSLEY: Once again, no actual citizens turn out for the event, which unfolds in a room full of bored-looking journalists. Thierry Arnaud is a political analyst with BFM French Television.

THIERRY ARNAUD: It is a bit of a paradox because at long last we're going to have a mayor for Paris who's going to be a female mayor. So that's kind of a historic event. But nobody seems to care a whole lot here in Paris.

BEARDSLEY: Hidalgo is the daughter of Spanish immigrants. Kosciusko-Morizet, who goes by the initials NKM, comes from an elite family of diplomats. She also served as an environment minister under former President Nicholas Sarkozy. Despite the women's personal differences, their platforms are quite similar. Perhaps that's why the French media focus on the two women's personal image, says Arnaud.

ARNAUD: There's nothing particularly exciting or radical in what they're proposing. And that's sort of shifts the focus to stylish issues I guess.

BEARDSLEY: Hidalgo was suspected of touching up her campaign poster which was likened to a L'Oreal advert for anti-wrinkle cream. NKM caught flak for carrying a 2,000-year-old handbag while trying to appear as one of the people. Both candidates have also thrown out proposals for (speaking French), or big public works, that likely have no chance of materializing, such as transforming abandoned metro stations into swimming pools and restaurants. Out on the streets of Paris there's been little enthusiasm for the race.

JEAN PERVOE: (Speaking French)

BEARDSLEY: I think I'm going to cast a blank ballot, saying Jean Pervoe. Hidalgo doesn't really have the stature and NKM has a nervous energy I don't like. Parisian Chantal Bremster's(ph) response is even more astonishing.

CHANTAL BREMSTER: (Speaking French)

BEARDSLEY: She says both candidates are fine but certain positions should only be held by men. I'm old school, she says.

The candidates faced off this week in a heated televised debate and with Kosciusko-Morizet unexpectedly leading, Parisians have perked up and taken a new interest in their race for mayor. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

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