Bertrand Delanoë put the party back in Paris. The city's Socialist mayor turned a place derided as a "museum" into the world's suggestion box for popular festivals. He cracked down on cars and reversed the city's scourge of, in city-hall parlance, "canine dejections." And in the process, he became one of France's most popular political figures, ranking well ahead of presidential runner-up Ségolène Royal in a Paris Match poll.
Anticipation is now building over a Delanoë-Royal showdown for the Socialist leadership in the fall of 2008. Such a post would give Delanoë the national-level experience and pulpit he lacks, and is considered one possible track to a Socialist nomination for the 2012 presidential election. Delanoë, a keen political operator, has said he isn't ruling anything out.
Now 57, Delanoë was born and raised in colonial Tunisia and moved at the age of 14 to southwest France. In 1974 he headed to Paris, and has spent more than 30 years in city politics, with other stints as a marketing consultant, a Socialist Party spokesman and senator. In 1998 he became the first major French politician to come out as gay. In 2001 he beat Paris's right-wing leadership (dogged by allegations of corruption) for the top job, and fashioned himself a man of the people.
As mayor, he eschews the official residence for his Left Bank flat. Ambitious projects like Paris Plage, the Seine-side pseudobeach, have been replicated from Mexico City to Tokyo. He democratized the city's green spaces by removing many of the stuffy LAWN FORBIDDEN signs that made city grass off-limits and installing free Wi-Fi in parks and libraries. In 2007 he inaugurated Vélib', Paris's wildly popular free-access bike system.
Critics argue that Delanoë has promoted razzle-dazzle events above the humdrum needs of Parisians. Wry, witty and thoroughly cosmopolitan, he is also often described as "choleric" with staff and opposition. A day after the International Olympic Committee selected London over Paris (and other cities) for the 2012 Olympics, terrorists attacked London. But in a moment of atrocious political timing, Delanoë, four days later, accused the British bid team of cheating.
Still, after a midterm dip in the polls, Delanoë's fortunes have improved. Standard & Poor's recently cited the city's robust financial performance, modest debt burden and sophisticated management. In March Delanoë is up for re-election; a second term could set him up for a run at national office. He has consistently polled higher on likability than his right-wing mayoral challenger, Françoise de Panafieu, of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP Party. But parlaying city hall into the Élysée Palace will be no day at the beach.