Paris's Urbane Renewal

Sitting in his campaign headquarters--a onetime cafe near Paris's trendy Marais district--Bertrand Delanoe lights a Davidoff cigarillo and contemplates the cities he adores: New York because "it's a melting pot," Los Angeles because "it's Latin," "fabulous" Rio, "contradictory" Cape Town. He loves "the great Arab cities," Marrakech and Fez, and "has a passion for Jerusalem." In short, the man last week's polls predicted would be the next mayor of Paris has a penchant for cities where cultures collide and produce a mix that is quintessentially urban. Delanoe himself is quintessentially urbane. Just the sort of man you might expect to find having a coffee in his quartier--not necessarily the kind you'd expect to lead a populist revolt.

But going into the first round of municipal elections over the weekend, Delanoe looked poised to do just that. If he wins the likely runoff on Sunday, his victory will come, in part, because he represents the ebullient and creative side of the City of Light. A socialist, he would head its first left-wing government since the legendary and short-lived Commune, 130 years ago. With French presidential elections scheduled for next year, Delanoe's victory would be a potent omen. His closest political ally, socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, is already campaigning unofficially to replace President Jacques Chirac in the Elysee Palace. The whole continent is watching. Yet, the French public and Europe's politicians are just beginning to get to know this lanky 50-year-old--who worked in Jospin's shadow most of his career--an understated sophisticate who is affably intellectual and comfortably homosexual.

British tabloids have run the inevitable headlines about gay paree. But given the discretion of the French press when it comes to politicians' private lives, one could ask why he publicly admitted his sexual orientation in the first place. Two years ago a ferocious political debate erupted in France over a socialist-backed law that gives unmarried couples legal rights equivalent, in many cases, to married people. In a society where heterosexuals are increasingly reluctant to tie the knot, such legislation was predictable. But because it also embraced gay partnerships the law raised a moralistic storm. "The only ones who fought against it were homophobes," says Delanoe, who fervently supported the law. "A television network asked me, 'Will you participate in a debate on the subject? Will you say you're homosexual?' I did. I ended the broadcast saying, 'I'd like it if nobody gives a damn'--and it's clear to me now that nobody does give a damn."

In fact, Delanoe defines himself as "Mediterranean." "I'm a Frenchman born in Tunisia from a mix of Breton, Italian and English," he says. "And what's more, I'm descended from a family of travelers, people who moved around." His father came from a long line of officers in the merchant marine, and was an atheist. His mother was raised in a strict, Roman Catholic home. "I lived in a culture that was a bit 'Old France'," he says. When Delanoe was 14, his family moved to the south of France. At 24, he moved to Paris. Already active in socialist politics, he was a member of the party's leadership before he was 30, and in the early '80s, he served as its spokesman.

Get your unlimited Newsweek trial >

In a sense, Delanoe is an immigrant in his own country. In 1986, he says, "around the time I was 35, I had an anxiety attack: 'What if this is all I do for the rest of my life?' " Although Delanoe kept the seat he'd won on the Paris City Council, he dropped out of his party's leadership and started his own public-relations firm. He went back to Tunisia, to the city of Bizerte where he'd spent his youth. "Over the last 16 years, I've pieced together the shards of my childhood," he says, "the friends of my parents, the teachers, the nuns who taught me when I was little, my schoolmates, and my friends of today. All are mixed together." Each year he spends one to three months in the place he still calls home. He doesn't imagine himself anywhere in France outside the cosmopolitan capital.

His popularity shows just how fed up even conservative Parisians are with the scandal-ridden Gaullist machine put in place by Chirac when he occupied the Hotel de Ville from the 1970s to the '90s. Delanoe's campaign is built around ideas of openness and transparency, and the slogans play nicely against the Gaullists. The current Gaullist mayor, Jean Tiberi, and his wife, Xaviere, have been the object of so many corruption inquiries Tiberi wasn't able to get his party's endorsement. He chose to run as an independent, thus splitting the conservative vote, and keeping the issue of Gaullist corruption--and efforts to conceal it--front and center.

But there's also a personal vision behind Delanoe's rhetoric. "Paris is extremely strong when it is most welcoming," he says. What the Gaullists have done is to "museumify" the city, he says, to try to "standardize" it, but "Paris without intellectual arguments, without conflict, it's not Paris." What Delanoe promises Parisians, newcomers and, yes, even to tourists, is a program of urbane renewal.

Paris's Urbane Renewal | News