Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Boosted by big sustainability wins, Mayor Anne Hidalgo is pitching bold plans to make the city center “100 percent bicycle” and turn office space into housing.
Whatever you think of them, you can’t say the new promises from Paris’s Mayor Anne Hidalgo lack ambition. Seeking re-election at the municipal polls in March, Hidalgo unveiled proposals this week that include a referendum on the role of Airbnb, a plan to make the city center “100 percent bicycle,” a new 5,000-strong municipal police force in which at least half the staff are women, and a vow to spend 20 billion euros on converting office buildings into affordable housing.
By international standards these are bold proposals. Other European cities may already be on the road to going further in similar policy areas: Madrid has already banned cars from its inner city, Barcelona has hit Airbnb with a fine of €600,000 for breaking local home-share rule infractions, and Berlin has approved a citywide five-year rent freeze. No other city is as yet going quite as hard as Paris, however, in trying to tackle pollution, congestion, and housing access and affordability simultaneously.
In an unusual Paris election season, however, what might seem ultra-progressive in other cities doesn’t set Hidalgo’s policy package drastically apart from the crowd. While she currently leads in the polls, her primary opponents have not necessarily been Green-skeptic conservatives as such, but other candidates occupying the center-left space who have equally forthright, broadly pro-green choices in their manifestos. As news magazine L’Obs puts it, Paris has “a municipal landscape where all the candidates are striving to green their program.” In that local context, Hidalgo’s plans do not seem especially radical.
If the current mayor is re-elected, some of these program promises may be relatively easy to deliver. A referendum on Airbnb, for example, has been in the cards for some time. The idea, the mayor insists, would not be to block possibilities for genuine home-sharing, but to allow Parisians to decide neighborhood by neighborhood exactly what local regulations they want placed on the sector. Slated to be held before this summer, the vote could still create some problems by introducing a hyper-local checkerboard of differing rules, with strict regulations in some places and a more laissez-faire approach in others, but it’s something that not even Airbnb itself could object to in principle. Other proposals, such as the plan to make inner Paris a bicycle-first city work well because they do not come with a specific timetable attached, and thus suggest a simple continuation of the tough car-removing policies with which Hidalgo has already made a name for herself.
The plan would see more express cycling routes, segregated with raised medians, and lane space allotted to bikes across the city. This space would be largely taken from current space allotted to cars, while a pedestrianization plan will continue to sweep motor vehicles away from major streets. Such changes are indeed within the mayor’s power, though they have been challenged (unsuccessfully) in the past by regional leaders claiming that they are unfair to suburban commuters.
Others, however, will require substantial funding and the mobilization of support. Hidalgo is setting herself the target of starting construction on 30,000 new homes with rents at least 20 percent lower than market rates by 2026—a plan to be funded by a 50/50 split public-private partnership. Many of these units are due to come from converted office space, which Hidalgo believes is oversupplied and in less urgent demand than housing. And the plan would certainly be popular with the stretched middle class. Employers may nonetheless fear a loss of potential workspace, and “affordable housing” that hinges on market-rate prices can easily become unaffordable when private rents spike.
What’s striking about Paris’ current politics, however, is not that these measures are being proposed, but that many of Hidalgo’s main opponents are proposing something similar. Benjamin Griveaux, candidate for President Macron’s centrist La République en Marche party, is also proposing to help middle-class renters—by helping landlords to renovate substandard-condition housing that is unrentable. He is likewise pushing for new segregated cycle paths that will ultimately be double the length of Paris’s metro. Popular independent Cédric Villani, a former LREM leading light who has launched his candidacy in opposition to official party candidate Griveaux, wants to become “Paris’s first true eco-mayor,” cracking down on skyscraper construction on the periphery of the city, pushing for more Airbnb regulation, and introducing such measures as organic-only meals in school cafeterias. The Green Party candidate David Belliard is no less forthright, advocating that Paris follow Berlin’s example and instigate a five-year rent freeze. In a city where these four candidates together are currently polling over 65 percent of the vote share, Hidalgo’s proposals for the 2.2 million residents within her jurisdiction are clearly mainstream.
As you might expect, these candidates are highly critical of Hidalgo’s record. But these criticisms are not aimed at the mayor’s policies so much as the discrepancy between them and her actual record. Griveaux says the mayor is dawdling on her bike plans, with only 50 percent of the goals set in 2015 met. Villani has likewise criticized Hidalgo for failing to deliver yet on her goal of reining in the effect of Airbnb on the rental market, and of cynical links with developers constructing a controversial skyscraper on the Paris periphery. Hidalgo has defended herself around housing issues such as Airbnb's pressure on rents by pointing out that 100,000 public housing units have been constructed in Paris since 2001, when her socialist party predecessor as mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, assumed power.
Green candidate David Belliard, meanwhile, has questioned Hidalgo’s green credentials, attributing her successes in sustainability to pressure from his own party which—to add a twist — currently holds posts in Hidalgo’s administration as a minor coalition partner in Paris’s municipal assembly. It may be hard to demonstrate that Green Party influence has been the shaping force in the administration’s sustainability goals, but the mayor’s reputation as trusted driver of green change has been somewhat damaged by a chaotic breakdown in the city’s bikeshare system last year.
Among the serious candidates, only Rachida Dati of the Republicans still declares herself against what is possibly Hidalgo’s most controversial policy, the pedestrianization of quays on the Seine’s right bank. Dati is likewise the only major candidate skeptical about the mayor’s pro-bike drive. “I don’t see myself going to work by bike,” she has said. “You’d only have to see the state I’d arrive in.” A reasonable objection to bike commuting, no doubt, but its rarity among candidates suggest that Hidalgo has won arguments over placing sustainable transit at the heart of the municipal program.
Does that mean she will also win the election? In a rather strange election season—a political climate that has changed dramatically in recent years—there is still much up for grabs. When Hidalgo was elected, France also had a socialist Party president. Since then, support for her party has plummeted nationally (much of it shifting to Macron’s LREM), making her highly vulnerable even if she enjoys much local support. In Paris's two-round process of elimination system, she will still likely prevail as the candidate of the left due to disarray amongst her opponents. (If LREM’s supporters hadn’t been split into two camps due to the rival campaigns of Griveaux and Villani, Macron’s party could likely have won.)
But even if she still doesn’t beat her rivals, what isn't nearly as vulnerable is an ambitious green agenda, as her sole major opponent on the right, Dati, currently has only minority support. With a slate of candidates backing similar policies to Hidalgo’s, the true victory seems to be for an urban politics that places sustainability at the heart of its policy choices—a position at center-stage that looks set to endure in Paris whatever the result of March’s elections.