In a part of northern Paris once known for train terminuses, drug addicts and refugee camps, Anne Hidalgo surveys a series of massive building works. In front of her is a main road with a four-lane traffic jam.
“All this was chaos,” says the city’s mayor. Was? “OK, is!” She describes the congested thoroughfare as “hideous”.
But here in Porte de la Chapelle, as elsewhere in Paris, Hidalgo has a radical blueprint. She wants fewer cars, wider pavements, more trees. “And of course, bicycles, because without bicycles, it wouldn’t be me!”
The mayor of Paris is leading one of the most ambitious efforts worldwide to wean people off cars. She has embraced the concept of the “15-minute city”, redesigning transport, housing, jobs and public space so residents can live without long, polluting commutes. Paris is the second most congested city in Europe after London, according to analytics company Inrix. But many boulevards now have a steady trickle of cyclists.
Parisians who used to enjoy driving across the city are outraged. They accuse Hidalgo of making the capital less easy and less pleasant to live in. Some on social media use the hashtag #SaccageParis — “Ransacked Paris” — to label photos of botched tree-planting and cycle lanes, as well as what they see as increased litter on the streets. Making matters worse, Paris’s buses, although not the mayor’s responsibility, have been plagued by driver shortages since Covid-19.
Carlos Moreno, the academic behind the 15-minute city concept, links opposition to rich people who don’t want poor people occupying public space. “There’s a bit of that,” says Hidalgo. “[But also] there are conservative people, who aren’t interested in change, because they live well, they have big flats, they have houses in the country. They don’t share the life of a middle-class Parisian.”
Hidalgo has struggled to sell her message to a broader public: last year her presidential campaign won just 1.75 per cent of the vote, the worst ever result for a Socialist party candidate.
But the world will soon have an opportunity to judge her changes. Paris hosts the 2024 Olympics. Where today there are roadworks, there will be 60km of bicycle lanes, allowing visitors to cycle to each venue. Porte de la Chapelle will have a new sports arena, with a green roof garden. Hidalgo wants the area to be “as beautiful as Les Invalides” — a reference to the Parisian monument commissioned by Louis XIV. “Local people deserve beauty . . . There are always people saying, ‘Yes, but not now.’ And I say, ‘No, people here are in a hurry.’”
Many politicians talk about climate change. But Hidalgo is one of the few in power to ask citizens to accept the inconveniences of climate action. Fewer cars are one example. Another is air conditioning. Paris summers are increasingly exceeding 40C, but to save energy, the Olympic Village where athletes will stay will not have air conditioning. “Why do we think we need air conditioning?” Design techniques are meant to guarantee that, even in the climate of 2050, the buildings won’t exceed 28C for more than 160 hours a year. “I can’t just think about the impact on the athletes for 15 days . . . You can’t respond to climate change without having it always, always, always in your mind.”
She also wants Russian and Belarusian athletes to be banned from the Olympics. Such stances have put her on collision course with the International Olympic Committee. “There’s pressure,” Hidalgo smiles. “But they know me.”
Far-right conspiracy theorists have taken aim at the 15-minute city concept, claiming the idea is part of a socialist plot to control the world. That view doesn’t survive contact with Hidalgo: she may be a social democrat, but she’s no Bond villain. She is a slight, smiling figure, who sometimes seems otherworldly.
“I have a dream, because I was born in Andalucía [in southern Spain], where the way of life is very different. When I was little, we — the children, the grandparents, everybody — would go down to the street with our chairs and we would play there. For me, that is like an ideal.”
We are speaking in Spanish, the language we have in common. Hidalgo moved from Spain to France as a child. She became a labour inspector and deputy mayor of Paris before she was elected mayor in 2014.
The following year, terrorists killed more than 130 people in co-ordinated Paris attacks. There was an influx of refugees from Syria. In 2016, heavy rain caused the Seine to burst its banks. “I spent six years managing crises,” she says. Each one made her want “to go further” in transforming the city.
One of her most audacious actions was in 2020, when she decided to close the Rue de Rivoli, a major street in the heart of Paris, lined with high-fashion shops, luxury hotels and museums, to cars. “My whole team looked at me, like, Are you mad? You have an election coming up.” Critics say the change has affected businesses. “But it’s a lie.”
Paris’s population fell by about 75,000 people between 2014 and 2020. The exodus, which is likely to have increased during the pandemic, does not seem the sign of a flourishing city. But Hidalgo insists “Paris is not emptying . . . Paris was very dense. We’re de-densifying the city.”
She attributes the falling population to property prices and divorce rates. “In Paris . . . one in two couples divorce.” She urges people to think not just of the city of Paris of 2mn people that she runs, but also of “Grand Paris”, the wider area of 7mn that is due to be connected by a (behind schedule) metro project. “We can’t go on building within [the city of] Paris. We need to open our frontiers.”
“The opposition say people are leaving because they can’t drive their car through the centre of the city. That’s stupid. What people say is that they need cheaper housing to stay in Paris . . . A city’s creativity doesn’t depend on cars. That’s the 20th century. We’re in the 21st.”
Her aim is to increase the proportion of social housing from about 25 per cent to 40 per cent by 2026. This will cost €200mn this year alone, including buying former office blocks and turning them into housing.
She criticises the rental platform Airbnb, “which has made us lose a lot of housing”. Will she go ahead with a promised referendum on Airbnb? “For now, no — because also the Olympics are coming.” But its presence in Paris is “still not” a settled matter.
Hidalgo is also leading a clean-up of the river Seine, although delays mean it will not open to swimming until 2025. The operation involves connecting sewers to 35,000 homes in Grand Paris that previously discharged their wastewater straight into the river, and building new infrastructure so the city’s main sewers don’t empty into the Seine when there are floods. Hidalgo wants to give the river legal personhood, so legal action can be taken against those who pollute it.
She cannot say when Paris streets will no longer be covered in works but claims the Olympics accelerated the improvements. “From here to 2025-26 there will be quite radical transformations in the way people get around [and in housing]. There will be a visible ‘before’ and ‘after’.”
Her critics, however, say that Paris’s streets are becoming dirtier. “There is always a problem of cleanliness in France. [In Paris] people’s behaviour still has to improve. There are still people who say to the binmen, to the street cleaners, ‘I pay my taxes, it’s your job to pick it up.’”
Another problem is electric scooters. Last year three people were killed in accidents involving scooters and similar devices. Hidalgo is holding a vote on April 2 on whether scooter rental companies, such as Lime, should be banned. “Enough! We have spoken a lot with the scooter operators. We have put restrictions. But we’ve arrived at a point where it’s not possible.”
Holding a vote is a counter to critics who say her changes have been too top-down. “I think people will [vote for a ban], but I could be wrong. April 2 will be a democratic exercise that we’ve never done before. It’s the first and it won’t be the last. Every year we will be able to have a vote on something.”
On rats in Paris Yes, there are rats. Scientists have told me that rats have bigger litters: they have more babies than before, with climate change. And also people eat out. And the floods in 2016 when a lot came out [of the sewers] and they liked it more out than in.
Why she likes Netflix’s cliché-filled drama ‘Emily in Paris’ It’s funny. People do need something a bit light.
Why she will not sell the Parc des Princes football stadium to Qatar-owed Paris Saint-Germain The city needed money. But when they offered us €38mn, it’s a joke, no?
I point to the UK’s cautionary experience with referendums. Has Paris benefited from Brexit? “A bit. We were always being compared — not so favourably — with London . . . When [Vogue editor-in-chief] Anna Wintour comes to see me, saying, ‘Here is where the energy is today’, well, I feel like [fictional Netflix character] Emily in Paris!”
How does Hidalgo explain the failure of her presidential campaign? Not by blaming her message or over-reach. She blames President Emmanuel Macron for reshaping French politics, so there isn’t a “reasonable right and reasonable left” but a centre against populists of left and right. “I knew there would be little chance of winning.”
She is fiercely opposed to Macron’s pension reforms. “Macron played a lot in his re-election campaign on ‘me or chaos’. But we are going to have him and chaos.”
Macron’s allies have accused Hidalgo of financial mismanagement. “They have tried to strangle [us], and they haven’t managed it.” Unable to squeeze more money from the central government, she raised the property tax.
Hidalgo’s changes have provoked enough controversy that even allies question if she can win re-election for a third term in 2026. She says she hasn’t decided whether to run. By 2026, for all her ambition, Paris will almost certainly not have caught up with Amsterdam’s cycle lanes, or Vienna’s public housing, or experienced Barcelona’s post-Olympic bounce. Whether it ever becomes a 15-minute city probably depends as much on the next mayor as on her.
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