Femmes Politiques

French Vote Thrusts Two Women Into the Spotlight

Elections in France made Socialist Anne Hidalgo mayor of Paris, and the far-right Marine Le Pen a national power.

Thierry Chesnot/Getty

France’s voters gave the phenomenally unpopular François Hollande a decisive dressing down on Sunday.

Nationwide municipal elections were the French president’s first mid-term test. And his Socialist Party candidates predictably failed, a punishing defeat surprising only in its scope. Opposition conservatives, a mess in their own right, nevertheless managed unprecedented gains, while the far-right gained crucial new ground.

After the fog of the vote—a dizzying affair that saw 926,068 candidates battle it out for mayor and council jobs in 36,000 towns over two rounds a week apart—two characters rise above the morass: two winning women, different as can be, heiresses apparent with a vengeance.

In one corner, National Front leader Marine Le Pen, the far-right’s raucous spitfire. Three years after taking up the torch from her rabble-rousing dad Jean-Marie Le Pen, his blond scion continues to lead the party to the promised land of electoral credibility.

In the other corner, Anne Hidalgo, a rare Socialist silver lining Sunday, saw off a flashier challenger by a nine-point margin in the popular vote in Paris to become the city’s first woman mayor. She had waited in the wings for more than a decade as the city’s unassuming Number 2 during the reign of Mayor Bertrand Delanoë.

With key victories, each woman in her own way took a serious step out from under the shadow of a cumbersome mentor.

In a brash new foray on Sunday, Le Pen’s National Front or candidates it supported won 12 mayoral races, including the sizable town of Béziers and a 150,000-strong district of Marseilles.

Granted, most of the FN’s new mayors will lead other towns even French geography majors have never heard of. But flashy metropolises were hardly the goal. Indeed, observers noted before this election that the party hardly has enough personnel to staff more than a handful of town halls. But Sunday night’s gains were another important step on the road to shedding the party’s diabolical image, to promote it definitively beyond a mere protest vote.

Marine Le Pen plays a long game, and she has the time: She finished an impressive third in her first presidential bid in 2012, aged only 43. (Her father first ran for president at 45 and didn’t stop trying until his 80s.)

Now with 13 new mayors, Marine Le Pen’s new-look National Front has a chance to try its hand at governance and show what it can do. Critically, too, the FN claims it won more than 1,500 town council seats on Sunday night. A gaggle of party faithful across the country will have six years in office to cut their teeth. And Marine Le Pen will have a full battalion of professionals to draw on in races for years to come.

The mere fact French media referred to run-off races the FN didn’t win Sunday as “defeats”—including major towns like Perpignan, where Le Pen’s partner Louis Aliot had a shot—speaks volumes about how far she has already come.

Anne Hidalgo, meanwhile, cuts a different figure. Diffident, almost stiff, apparently timid but with a reputed brusque temper, the 54-year-old toiled for more than a decade alongside iconoclast Paris Mayor Delanoë. Born in Andalusia in 1959, she was two when her family fled Franco’s Spain for a housing project in Lyons. She was naturalized at 14 and changed her Spanish name, Ana, to Anne. A labor inspector by trade, she didn’t join the Socialist Party until her mid-30s and then worked in the staffs of Socialist cabinet ministers before joining Delanoë ahead of his successful bid for Paris in 2001 and winning a Paris council seat herself.

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Tellingly, as Mayor Delanoë’s loyal deputy, Hidalgo seized the opportunity to show her mettle in 2002, in tragic circumstances. During festivities for Paris’s first annual Nuit Blanche, an all-night arts festival, Delanoë was stabbed by a deranged attacker at Paris city hall. Hospitalized, seriously injured, he would return after a six-week convalescence. Hidalgo showed herself a capable stand-in as interim mayor during his absence, but ever the loyal sidekick she apparently was content to fade back into the shadows without quarrel after his return, reportedly earning Delanoë’s enduring gratitude. And Delanoë, now 63, announced years ago that he wouldn’t seek a third term.

Hidalgo is said to have turned down Hollande’s offer of a cabinet post in 2012, fancying her chances in the Paris race. She threw her hat in early and campaigned for an exceptionally long 18 months, holding fast against the much flashier former conservative cabinet minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet. The French press dubbed Hidalgo “the discreet one,” or chided her lack of charisma. Rivals tagged her an apparatchik, an heiress, handpicked by a mayor/mentor said to nickname her “ma petite Anne,” my little Anne. But Le Monde likened her to Hollande, or even Angela Merkel, the stealthily unassuming figure who pulls out the big win. And winning Paris for the Socialists despite a national rout counts for a lot.

So, these are two French femmes politiques to watch while they climb out of cumbersome shadows. And as an election-humbled Hollande prepares a cabinet shuffle under brand new prime minster Manuel Valls, he may promote a third similarly afflicted woman himself. Local media is aflutter with the rumor that 2007 Socialist presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, Hollande’s ex and mother of his four children, may be poised for a return to the limelight in his new government. If he does dare to name Royal, expect another burst of flashbulbs to light up the shade.