The socialist mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, is in turmoil as the figures for the city’s finances have been released in the press. Burdened with a debt of more than €7 billion due to her calamitous mismanagement, the French capital could be put under “supervision,” a rare procedure that would put an end to several years of erratic spending by a city that is now damaged and disfigured.
The mayor’s latest announcement has set the world on fire: in early November she explained that she wanted to increase property tax in Paris by 50%, reneging—for the umpteenth time—on one of her electoral promises: not increasing taxes.
Anne Hidalgo is forced to do this because the city’s debt has reached the abysmal level of €7.7 billion. This is the official figure that has now been disclosed, but according to some experts, it is still below the actual amount, which, if the number of hidden debts is included, brings the tally to about €10 billion. So Hidalgo needs to find money and fast because the coffers are desperately empty, and the cessation of payments is not far off.
The mayor of Paris has amazed all observers with her stalwart refusal to face up to the catastrophe of her management. As the newspaper Capital noted not without irony at the beginning of 2022, instead of drawing up, like everyone else, a list of income and expenditures for the next twelve months, the mayor of Paris asked her teams to present a ‘gender-sensitive’ budget. To this end, working groups have been set up, and “exploratory workshops” launched in order to decide on the “methodological choices” prior to the “categorisation of expenditure dedicated to gender-sensitive measures” and the “intensification of the collection of gender-sensitive data.” This is the kind of logorrhea that Paris city council staff engage in—a pastime, among many others, that causes expenses to soar.
Just what kind of historical spending are we talking about here? It is important to have some figures in mind to understand the extent of the disaster.
When the city of Paris fell into the hands of the Left, Paris had no debt whatsoever. There were even several hundred million euros in the coffers when the socialist Bertrand Delanoë was elected in 2001, after decades of right-wing management under Jacques Chirac and Jean Tiberi. When, in 2014, he handed over the reins to his heir, Anne Hidalgo, the debt had already climbed to €3.36 billion. Since then, the situation has deteriorated at a rapid pace.
Several factors explain this uncontrolled explosion in public spending. The two largest items of expenditure of the city are the operating expenses, which are mainly composed of salaries and investments.
The wage bill has continued to rise, as the city council has continued to hire, reaching the staggering figure of 50,000 civil servants, although it is unknown whether there are actually 53,000 or 56,000 since the municipal authorities are unable to agree on the exact figure. As minister of public accounts Gabriel Attal pointed out, there are more civil servants within the Paris city council today than at the European commission. One civil servant per 44 inhabitants—2.5 times more than in London. The city reports a payroll budget of €2.54 billion for 2022, out of a total expenditure of €8.36 billion.
In terms of investments, the city council has consistently launched expensive programmes driven by ideological concerns, like €10 billion between 2014 and 2020 for social housing, and €1 billion for transportation. But what the Parisians have effectively had to endure are costly and risky spending to make the city more ‘beautiful’—an endeavour with dubious results—and above all, more ‘ecological.’ The most harmonious and emblematic squares in Paris have been redeveloped to the tune of millions as part of the ‘Reinventing our Squares’ project, for a total budget of €46 million, dispersed without any consultation, to achieve highly questionable results, such as the Place du Panthéon which is now littered with hideous strewn-about benches made of recyclable wood.
Traffic has been constantly disrupted, with the aim of driving cars out of the capital, again with works costing millions: €40 million for the banked lanes along the Seine; €23 million on Boulevard Magenta from the Gare du Nord; €60 million per kilometre of track for the new tramway installed around Paris, remind us the experts from Capital—even though an old railway line, abandoned by unscrupulous councillors, had existed since 1900 and lay a few metres away.
These cases are obviously only a few symptomatic examples among many others. The point is that these city projects are executed without an overall plan or accounting logic. Inconsistencies in terms of revenue have forced tens of thousands of inhabitants to flee the capital every year. There are so many fewer resources. Parking fees are raised to fill the empty coffers, even while many parking spaces are removed.
The city council has to add to its ubiquitous expenses the costs of a whole host of lawsuits for all the ill-conceived and ill-thought-out affairs, with contracts shamelessly broken and the crowd of discontented people growing. Among others, the mismanagement of the Autolib car-sharing system is expected to cost her €233 million. The non-respect of the public tender for the construction of a new skyscraper, the Triangle Tower, will cost €263 million.
As early as 2017, the mayor’s advisor in charge of the Budget, Financial Affairs, and Public Contracts at the city council, Myriam Métais, alerted Anne Hidalgo to her mismanagement and to the disaster that was looming. Anne Hidalgo preferred to close her eyes and ears.
To make her mad spending spree possible, Anne Hidalgo borrowed again and again, in the short, medium, and long term, and in spite of common sense. The consequences have been as obvious as they are dramatic: the outstanding debt is constantly climbing, 110% higher than in 2014, as Florence Berthout, the mayor of the 5th arrondissement, reminded the Paris council. Municipal finances are now devoured by borrowing. If we relate the figures of the debt to the Parisian population, we can see that the debt related to each inhabitant of the capital amounts to about €3,800, compared to €1,640 at the end of 2014. This is a near doubling–while the average debt-per-capita for cities over 100,000 inhabitants in France is €1,521. These figures are mathematically deductible, a good thing, since the city of Paris website prefers not to disclose the proportion of the budget devoted to debt repayment.
The Parisian budget is unbalanced, but the reality is hidden from the eyes of the public. Anne Hidalgo has benefited from guilty privileges and unheard-of budgetary access, which have allowed her to continue her crazy spending without the slightest restraint. The proof is the practice of capitalised rents by the Paris municipality, set up in 2016 by Anne Hidalgo’s team. In order to plug the holes in its operating budget, the city asked its social housing organisations to pay every year, in advance, part of the rents they would collect over the next sixty years—in effect forcing them to go into debt on its behalf. As the law requires municipalities to balance their operating budget without going into debt, this technique requires an annual waiver from the government, granted, according to the texts, only in the case of “exceptional circumstances” and for a very short time. Anne Hidalgo took advantage of the presence of her former lover François Hollande at the Elysée to set up this system. He willingly provided this service to Anne Hidalgo, without asking her for any accountability.
But the game will eventually come to an end because Emmanuel Macron’s government stated it had no intention of allowing this quasi-mafia mechanism to continue and announced that by 2022 it would no longer grant exemptions. What’s more, the government is brandishing the threat, which is becoming more and more specific, of putting the city of Paris under supervision.
In France, when a local authority does anything with its finances, which sometimes happens in small towns, or when it presents obviously falsified accounts, the law requires the state to take control in order to restore order. The opposition to Anne Hidalgo—in this case, the Les Républicains group led by Rachida Dati, the unsuccessful candidate for mayor in 2020—is urging this. The hashtag #Parissoustutelle is beginning to garner some success on Twitter. The Minister of Transport, Clément Beaune—invited on Europe 1 on Sunday, November 27th—explained that placing Paris under supervision, while considered as a last resort, “was not excluded.”
This administrative manoeuvre is not totally disinterested: Renaissance, the government party, hopes to win back the mayor’s office in the next elections in 2024. The government also has other cards up its sleeve, such as the repeal of the Paris-Lyon-Marseille law, which subjects France’s three largest cities to a specific, indirect suffrage electoral system, comparable to the American electoral system, which Bertrand Delanoë and Anne Hidalgo have skilfully used to consolidate their positions. A direct election would put an end to the kind of dictatorship established by Anne Hidalgo on Paris councillors.
For the moment, Anne Hidalgo is superbly ignoring the warnings with her usual obstinacy. With a team of 400 media handlers working at her beck and call, she distils a laudatory discourse on social media about her exemplary achievements. The messaging, however, is becoming less and less convincing. She doesn’t care about the critics. She explains that she keeps her spirits up by repeating to herself every morning in front of the mirror “everybody loves me” while listening to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
Today the record is jamming. Let us hope that the tune of Parisian degradation will soon come to an end.