To hear some tell it, Paris is under siege. This time it’s not the Vikings, Protestants, or Nazis, not even residents of the make-believe jihadi “no-go zones” decried by Fox News.
According to #saccageparis, with more than one million tweets and counting, the mayor herself, Anne Hidalgo, is the pillager. Paris’s first woman to have the top job, one of the last standing of the Parti Socialiste, is turning the city into an atrocious dump, they say. The campaign pleads with the cast of Emily in Paris to spread the word.
Another emergency flare, sent in English to capture maximum attention: “World! We need you! Do you love Paris? We are an apolitical citizen movement called #saccageparis Our mayor & her team are ransacking our city! Our heritage is in an awful danger! Call your media to save the most beautiful city in the world! Please help us, save Paris.”
Right. The emergency rooms are still full of coronavirus patients. An economic crisis looms. Have these people been to London, Berlin, or New York?
#Saccageparis (saccage means “sacking”) comprises mostly photo testimonials that zero in on dead crabgrass, concrete pylons, graffiti, ugly benches, and urine—the sort of thing you could catch in just about any corner of any major city undergoing housing and economic crises. (Thankfully, Twitter does not yet have a smell function.) The city also has a particular problem with street markets in neighborhoods with large African-immigrant populations—even if fruit, vegetables, and sundries are sold every day in every part of the city and none of markets have an aftermath that is what you’d call spotless.
The traditional media have lapped it up, with newspapers and TV channels dedicating ongoing coverage. Despite Hidalgo’s efforts to bury the outcry with spot cleanups and a torrent of pretty Paris pictures, the fracas has held on for months. The stain on her reputation is said to threaten her chances to run for president in 2022.
Residents’ annoyance with their mayors is as old as cities themselves, but this is a perfectly Parisian scandal. New Yorkers view urban blight almost with a kind of pride. If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere.
Parisians have a different relationship to their city, which, as one of the most visited in the world, places a high value on its ability to charm, seduce, and impress. Paris is the center of every function of power in France. There is no partitioning like we know in America: no D.C. for politics, New York for media, Hollywood for entertainment, Silicon Valley for tech, or Las Vegas for routine loss of human dignity. So important is Paris to the rest of France they don’t even have a local police force, only a national one, because if it happens to Paris, it happens to France.
Conversely, it’s where the dissatisfied converge from all corners of the country, saving up their best outrage and vandalism. Paris is what Freud might call “overdetermined.” It always needs to be ready for its close-up.
Indeed, #saccageparis is as obsessed with the aesthetic effect of Hidalgo’s term as its hygienic one. For every photo of trash on a city street, there is another post expressing horror at wooden park benches that don’t measure up to the glorious wrought-iron ones commissioned by Baron Haussmann.
The new, cheaper wooden benches in question really are hideous. So are the concrete lumps and screaming yellow plastic pylons required to keep some of the most lawless drivers in Western Europe out of new, more rigidly enforced bus lanes. After a year of on-and-off lockdowns that cleared the streets of pedestrians and city workers, whose numbers were reduced for health reasons, the trash stands out even more.
The Blame Game
But some of #saccageparis’s pictures undermine their zeal. One shows an outdoor restaurant terrace, hastily thrown together and empty, as if such terraces weren’t one of the ways Hidalgo’s administration worked to keep restaurants alive, clear-cutting red tape in a way unthinkable for a city with such a long-entrenched bureaucracy. Some un-watered grass is not going to turn off the tourists when there are no tourists.
Paris is what Freud might call “overdetermined.” It always needs to be ready for its close-up.
#Saccageparis is also particular in how it wants to blame one politician for every ill of the city, rather than point a finger at the collective and decades-old sins of cigarette butts, free-roaming crottes de chien, wildcat trash, and graffiti. Why let personal responsibility get in the way of a good bitchfest? The French have a complicated relationship with their nanny state, but if you can make the case that Hidalgo herself could get you to whip it out and pee on a pole, maybe you’re the one with issues.
Hidalgo has asked for some of it. She’s a talented politician, with laudable charisma and bravado, but she can be clunky. (When she first ran for mayor, right-wingers from the posh Seventh Arrondissement referred to her as “la concierge,” in reference to her Spanish roots. So far, Angela Merkel is the only female politician in the history of modern democracy who can get away with metaphorically thick ankles.)
In 2018, Hidalgo spent more than a quarter of a million dollars for a citizen-council-informed report on city cleanliness that produced just 14 pages of text. A group led by political opponents then produced a competing report 16 times that length and at zero cost to the taxpayer. They came to many of the same conclusions. (More manpower, more money, more effort put toward the problem, and a more simplified chain of command.)
She named the high-profile consultant Carlos Moreno “special envoy” to tell her that city services should be accessible to any resident within a 15-minute radius of their home; one could argue that much of Paris, a tiny city with 20 separate administrative boroughs, already meets that standard.
Quality-of-life snafus abound. Hidalgo’s efforts to re-start the Vélib’ rental-bike scheme with an electric fleet have been an expensive failure, even as she’s tripled the bike budget. The massive effort to colonize street parking for electric cars sounded great, but half the charging stations are out of order.
She was happy to pose for pictures at the signing of the 2015 Paris Agreement, whose goals she’s laudably tried to make good on, except that she decided to do it all at once. When large portions of a medieval city become a construction zone, the rats do tend to come out to play. Hidalgo has shut down whole arteries to cars overnight, causing enormous traffic pileups in an apparent bid to rid the city of offending vehicles out of frustration alone. If her goals are green, what about the extra diesel fumes coughed up from traffic at a constant standstill?
As much as we hate politicians who cry, It’s not all my fault, it’s not all Hidalgo’s fault. Some of the most cumbersome urban-planning schemes were voted in long before she came to power, in 2014, and she has the Olympics to worry about. (She famously didn’t support the Games coming to Paris in 2024, until she did.)
And she faces a similar administrative mille-feuille as Muriel Bowser’s in Washington, D.C. Some of the less attractive aspects of city life that Hidalgo is blamed for, such as crack dens and shooting galleries and refugee encampments, are officially the Élysée Palace’s bailiwick, as she explained to right-leaning Le Figaro last month, in an interview where the question of the pretty city took up easily half the ink.
The presidential election happens in 2022, and no one else on the left outside of extreme populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon has even half a chance. Hidalgo is the most high-profile socialist in the country and, except for Marine Le Pen, whose fame is partly a way to scare children at night, the most high-profile woman.
Hidalgo won re-election for mayor decisively in 2020. How she handles déconfinement should have far more impact on her chances than social-media outrage. So far, the shops and restaurant terraces are full. But we live in interesting times. We’ll know this thing has legs if we see hers on a Haussmannian bench.
Alexandra Marshall is a Paris-based Writer at Large for Air Mail