PARIS (AP) — Two women are vying to be the new face of Paris, the first time in this city's long history that the mayor won't be a Monsieur.
The discreet, hard-working Socialist Anne Hidalgo is the favorite to win municipal elections that start Sunday, which would keep this leading tourist destination in leftist hands despite the deep unpopularity of President Francois Hollande's Socialist national government.
"A woman at the head of one of the most important cities of the world ... will have of course a very, very important influence," Hidalgo told The Associated Press. It will also send an important message to leaders and voters in a country where women only got the vote at the end of World War II and where sexist attitudes persist toward women in power.
Hidalgo, 54, has experience on her side, after 13 years as the deputy to outgoing Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe. In all recent polls, Hidalgo leads center-right challenger Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, a 40-year-old rising star of former President Nicolas Sarkozy's party known by her initials NKM.
The race for Paris mayor — one of the most coveted jobs in French politics — is one of several thousand underway across the country for municipal elections held in two rounds March 23 and 30.
Both the top candidates in the capital pledge to improve security and transport and to build more public housing in one of the most expensive cities of the world.
Hidalgo, whose parents emigrated from Spain when she was 2, plays a low-profile card, arguing she'd rather meet with as many Parisians as possible than be a media star. She leads such a quiet campaign that she has been accused of "hibernating" by her conservative opponents.
"I'm very calm, very relaxed, very determined," Hidalgo told the AP. "We are going to write a new page for our city. We're going to take up new challenges regarding ecology, solidarity and democracy." Hidalgo says she wants to allocate 5 percent of the city investment budget — 71 million euros per year— to finance projects from citizens' initiatives.
Her ambitious challenger Kosciusko-Morizet, a former environment minister during Sarkozy's presidency who hardly hides her interest in the French presidency someday, was at first considered to have a real chance to win Paris. But her campaign has been compromised by dissent in her own party. Her party lists are facing dissident conservative candidates in some districts, which could cost her some precious votes.
One the one side, Hidalgo "does not have a career at the national level and is a man's heir," said Gael Sliman, a political analyst with the French polling agency BVA.
On the other side, he said, Kosciusko-Morizet has "huge political resources, a career at the ministerial level, and is quite young, so she has a career in the making. But she is penalized by an anti-Kosciusko-Morizet rebellion in her own party."