The democratic blade has just fallen: Anne Hidalgo, representative of one of the oldest political parties in France, the Socialist party, and, incidentally, mayor of Paris, received only 1.78% of the votes in the first round of the presidential election. She is paying in the ballot box for the failure of a left-wing party that’s been without an identity or a programme for many years. Since Lionel Jospin’s defeat in the 2002 presidential election, the Socialist party has constantly betrayed its popular electorate in favour of progressive societal fads. It was literally syphoned off by other personalities and other formations, more ambitious and more convincing, i.e., Emmanuel Macron, former minister and heir to President François Hollande, or Jean-Luc Mélenchon, former Socialist, now converted into the France Insoumise party.
But these long-term national dynamics are not the only ones that explain Anne Hidalgo’s wreck in the presidential elections. Anne Hidalgo is in fact paying—at last—for her disastrous record at the head of the city of Paris.
Hidalgo’s rise to power
Let’s go back to the facts. Anne Hidalgo managed to win the mayor’s office of Paris in the wake of her predecessor, the socialist Bertrand Delanoë, who was in office from 2001 to 2014. Bertrand Delanoë had capital assets of sympathy with the Parisian population, with whom he skillfully flattered certain inclinations. A cultured and elegant homosexual, he embodied a certain form of intellectual and social left-wing affections, and knew when it was necessary to send reassuring signals to the right-wing electorate—a minority—of the French capital, as when he dedicated the square of Notre-Dame to John Paul II.
Anne Hidalgo was his closest collaborator and was the obvious choice to succeed him. Her conquest of power for her first term was thus achieved without the slightest effort. From then on, things went from bad to worse. Bertrand Delanoë’s record was already questionable, but Anne Hidalgo chose to step on the accelerator of the Socialist mayor’s worst failings. Delusions of Utopia; a misplaced ecology that turned into an anti-car obsession; insecurity; the cult of ugliness and financial waste characterise her leadership in the city.
Parisians suffered, and every year more of them happily left the cesspool that had replaced ancient Lutetia—simple families as well as famous personalities that left by slamming the door and shaking the dust off their sandals. The City of Lights found itself plunged into socialist obscurantism, emerging as the tragic victim of the madness of its ruler, subjected to her vindictiveness and boundless carelessness.
Hidalgo exploits the pandemic
The pandemic has accelerated Anne Hidalgo’s work of destruction, initially by interfering with the voting process. The first round of municipal elections took place on March 15th, 2020—the day before lockdowns began in France. Many Parisians had already left the capital to go green. The wealthiest Parisians from the west of the city, who tend to vote right-wing, were lucky enough to be able to move to second homes. Those who remained voted Left, or hesitated to go to the polling stations. The second round, scheduled for March 22th, was cancelled and postponed for three months later, on June 28th. In both voting rounds, the turnout was very low, and benefited Anne Hidalgo.
The peculiar Parisian voting rules also helped Hidalgo maintain power. As a capital city, Paris has a special voting system which is similar to the American electoral system of electors. Parisians vote, but they do not elect the mayor. They vote to renew the Paris Council, whose councillors in turn elect the mayor—a form of indirect democracy, the workings of which are perfectly mastered by the Parisian socialist family. In 2020, Anne Hidalgo won the majority of votes against her opponent Rachida Dati of the Republicans, but with a very weak electoral base. She was elected with only 17% of registered voters. But in the Paris Council, she managed to get 96 seats out of 163, which amplified her mediocre score and gave her a sense of democratic legitimacy—albeit largely fantasised.
So, the pandemic and the Parisian voting process made Anne Hidalgo’s reelection easier. It also gave her a free hand to accelerate her dubious experiments.
With lockdowns and thousands of Parisians at home telecommuting, the streets were empty and Anne Hidalgo shamelessly took over. She installed “coronaways” to make the bicycle all-powerful, despite common sense. She covered the roadway with concrete barriers, yellow plastic studs, and messy signs on the ground. She increased the number of no-ways, dead ends, and roadworks. She installed traffic lights covered with brown adhesive tape. She proposed grotesque and expensive contemporary monuments to “dress up” crossroads and squares. She cut down trees and laid concrete over public gardens while talking about “greening.”
All of this contributed to making the city uglier, all the more so as she methodically destroyed the traditional urban furnishings that used to be the charm of the French capital. Davioud benches, Morris columns, Wallace fountains are degraded, damaged, or simply removed. They can now be found in antique shops, or in rubbish dumps, all over France. Foreigners who have stayed away from Paris because of the pandemic discover with amazement on their return that the city they loved is a shadow of its former self. Film and TV directors are forced to artificially recreate a Parisian setting because reality has become impossible to film.
“You had it coming,” the French from the provinces might have snickered.
Parisian backlash and the arrival of #SaccageParis
But beware: the vast majority of Parisians did not support Anne Hidalgo. She took advantage of a rather unprecedented political context and of her opponent’s weak capacity to mobilise. The vast majority of Parisians found themselves cruelly trapped in a second mandate that they did not want.
Fortunately, if the elective pseudo-democracy reinforced Anne Hidalgo in her dictatorial power, a new kind of democratic movement, bypassing the ballot box, has arrived to counterbalance her influence in an unexpected way: it is the movement known on the web under the hashtag #SaccageParis.
It all started on Twitter with a few photos, showing the sad face of the beautiful capital abandoned to Anne Hidalgo’s management. Piles of rubbish, yellow bollards, collapsed benches: as these are not isolated cases, but rather the sign of a universal malaise in the streets of Paris, the movement and the hashtag created by the Twitter account “Paname Propre” quickly went viral. Here one finds thematic series, like Paris and the Brown Tape, Paris and the Cut Trees, Paris and the Tags, and tearful before-and-after photos in emblematic places like the Place de la République or the lovely Place de la Contrescarpe in the Latin Quarter.
The effect of the accumulation is striking. A website has been created, and the constant flow of photos have had their effect. They’ve opened the eyes of sleeping Parisians and attracted international scrutiny. Alert! Paris is dying!
Given the success of the mobilisation on social networks, the movement has grown bolder. It has organised political actions, for instance: presenting a Davioud bench, one that survived the butchering, on the steps of the Paris City Hall. The publication of a book, La Disparition de Paris (2022), written by the art historian Didier Rykner, has become a great success in bookshops by providing arguments and precise facts and figures for those who still had doubts about the tragedy in action. Many media personalities have also helped the Parisian cause by denouncing the scandal.
An example of French conservatism
Hidalgo’s response was to accuse “the far-right,” somewhat ironic since we know that the far-right is almost non-existent in Paris. And that’s the whole point of the #SaccageParis movement: it brings together a large number of Paris lovers, on both the Right and the Left, who are attached to their city, to order, and to beauty.
The political response to the movement has been disastrous for Hidalgo. Her deputies and her teams remained silent, or forced to block the protesting profiles that attacked them on Twitter.
But after several weeks, faced with the scale of the protests, City Hall could no longer ignore the movement. Subtly, some results were obtained on the ground. Here and there, the traditional grills began to reappear at the foot of trees, and some dumpsites were cleaned up. A consultation on the future of Paris and the renovation of street furnishings was organised by the City Council, and the results were clear: Parisians did not want a hidalgo-ish aesthetic. The City Council, pressured to alter course, proposed a “Manifesto for the beauty of Paris,” which included the renovation of historical furniture.
The #SaccageParis movement deserves our full attention. It is a rather unprecedented example of parallel democracy; of viral democracy; of citizens’ mobilisation in favour of a project that is fundamentally rooted in—and desires to preserve—identity and heritage.
In short, a conservative movement.
It was able to achieve some concrete successes in Paris and forced the municipal authorities to react—albeit still very inadequately. It sent a signal that not everything was possible in the name of ecology and progressivism, and that there were intangibles that deserved to be preserved. It showed that the attachment to the traditional identity of a city was consubstantial to the happiness of its inhabitants—and one of the conditions of “living together.” It demonstrated that environmental preservation does not necessarily mean rushing ahead and destroying the past. Last but not least, it put the notion of heritage and transmission back in the spotlight.
It remains to be seen whether the lesson of mobilisation given by the #SaccageParis movement can be transposed to other sectors. It probably can. It is therefore important for conservatives to analyse precisely the reasons for its success. The alliance of the people—the citizens of Paris—and the elites—writers and actors—is certainly a factor. The unwavering constancy of the communication—not giving up—produced real effects. The combination of coordinated movement by a few discreet network heads and spontaneous testimony allowed for an exceptional virality that extended to a real democratic legitimacy. The #SaccageParis movement has been described as “the most important digital crisis of 2021 on French networks”: in one year, the movement will have generated no less than 3 million tweets, and the hashtag remained on top on Twitter for weeks.
Paris will not return to the beautiful city we once knew in a day. Much harm has been done. But the success of #SaccageParis is clear, and so is Anne Hidalgo’s stinging defeat in the presidential election. The figures speak for themselves. Out of over 1.3 million voters, she received less than 23,000 votes in Paris. In some arrondissements, Anne Hidalgo received even fewer votes than the blank or null vote.
She has shown through the microcosm of Paris what a France would be like if it bet on the madness of an unreasoned ecology, forgetting that in city management, and elsewhere, beauty is inseparable from goodness and truth. The good news is that Parisians do not want this utopia—and neither do the French.
Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).