SHE IS AT ONCE ENGAGING, AND AS THE FIRST FEMALE MAYOR of Paris, France, an energizing groundbreaker. Anne Hidalgo has many similarities to London, Ontario’s present acting mayor, Joni Baechler – highly enthusiastic about the job, a history in planning, an interest in affordable housing, and a keen desire to bring neighbourhoods together. But while Baechler is moving into the sunset of her time as acting mayor, Hidalgo is just getting started.
Hidalgo is often at her best when speaking of authenticity as a chief elected official. Politics, especially at election time, is often about candidates attempting to outdo each other as leaders of the people – often a tactic rather than a reality. Hidalgo puts a premium on genuineness, however, as when she was quoted recently in the Guardian:
“People want responsible politicians who are themselves, and I am who I am. I don’t play a role. If I’d wanted to, I’d have gone into the cinema or theatre … which, come to think of it, might have been fun, but was not my path … I haven’t changed and neither has my life. I have my family and the same friends and I still take my son to school. If the celebrity press wants to take pictures of me pushing a trolley around the supermarket, well, I’m not sure it will sell tabloids.”
In an age that frequently requires politicians to place career above family, Hidalgo’s approach is refreshing, in part because she presents the everyday occurrences of her life as just like that of most Parisians. And citizens have taken to that approach.
Elected only recently, it would have been easier if she would have championed great city causes such as prosperity, tourism, or European renewal, but she opted to speak about the one great concern that has been troubling her for years – economic inequality. She admits to having trouble imagining a great future for her city unless poverty itself becomes a priority. Her chief vehicle for tackling that reality is to create better affordable housing opportunities. Historic political practices and the influence of an international economic elite class means she is in for an uphill climb. The fact that she won her election with this as a key piece of her platform likely shows that the average Parisian realizes the time has come to deal with the problem effectively. “This was a campaign promise,” she affirms, “and I have made this my objective.”
One could only hope that London, Ontario could find such a champion among its leadership contenders. The city presently has a waiting list of over eight years for those in need of such housing, and although it has had some success in providing affordable shelter to families and individuals in need, it remains unlikely that poverty will hold a primary place in the upcoming civic election. That’s too bad, since an increasing amount of media space is given to the challenges of those facing low-income situations in the city because of the stubborn presence of poverty in the city.
Anne Hidalgo comes by such a focus honestly. With degrees in social services and law, she parlayed that skill into an impressive mayoral run about issues of social equity. And by winning as she did, she now possesses a mandate to move Paris from its Victor Hugo-esque image of haves and have-nots to a modern city that emphasizes the importance of every citizen contributing to the overall success of the community.
So convincing is she in her ardour for a fairer city that New York mayor, Bill de Blasio, calls her his “political soulmate.” Her recent trips to cities like New York and London, England, with plans for many more, indicate that she believes cities must work together to forge through their shared challenges.
Hidalgo is unique in that there are only a handful of women mayors in large cities like Houston and Madrid. We need more. In the meantime, however, her belief in the potential of every citizen in her city places her at the vanguard of a global mayor’s movement that cares about inclusion just as much as prosperity. London, Ontario, could use a similar vision – now more than ever.