When fighting for the French crown in 1593, the protestant King Henry IV of Navarre once opined that winning Paris was worth converting to Catholicism. Nearly four centuries later, President François Mitterrand’s Socialist government appears to have concluded that the capital is worth another sort of risk—the most damning press clippings of its 13 months in office.
Hatched in strict secrecy, its plan to decentralize the civic administration has whipped up storm clouds over the City of Light. At issue is not simply whether or not power and full municipal rights should be transferred to the capital’s 20 ward-like arrondissements, but the manner in which the Socialists have sabotaged their fiercest opponent: neo-Gaullist leader Jacques Chirac, who also happens to be mayor of Paris.
Dropped like a bomb from a cabinet meeting two weeks ago, the projected law effectively blows apart the fiefdom that Chirac has built around the gilt splendor of his Hôtel de Ville ever since he resigned the country’s prime ministership in a huff six years ago. Whether receiving visiting heads of state or showering Quebec Premier René Lévesque with Gaullist hospitality, he has presided over his staff of 40,000 as if over a parallel government. That power base has made him de facto opposition leader—former president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, after last year’s defeat, had to get voted onto his tiny cantonal council in the provinces as a step back toward the limelight. But the Socialists’ bill would turn Chirac’s mayoralty into a gilded cage of much ceremony and little real authority.
As well, proposed changes in the city’s electoral rules virtually assure the left will gain control of Paris in key municipal elections slated for next March. The bill, which will go before the Socialist-dominated National Assembly, stipulates that the mayor will no longer be directly elected by his 2.3 million citizens, but by delegates from each of 20 arrondissement councils which in turn will be voted in for the first time on a proportional ballot.
Trembling with indignation, his tricolor mayor’s sash tied defiantly around his waist, Chirac promptly called the press to his sumptuous Salon of Tapestries to denounce the move as “an insult to history.” As if warning of an enemy air raid, he intoned: “The city of Paris, capital of France, is threatened with dislocation.”
Elsewhere, the conservative weekly LExpress branded the measure as “a declaration of war.” And even the pictorial Paris-Match rallied to the cause with a poll showing that 66 per cent of Parisians think Chirac is a good mayor and that 65 per cent saw the new law as the government’s way of cutting him down to size. But the most unexpected outcry came from the government’s usual media boosters. André Laurens, the newly elected director of Le Monde, deplored the act in his first editorial as a “political operation.”
Apparently caught off guard, the government promptly backtracked. Interior Minister Gaston Defferre, the man in charge of decentralization, claimed that it was all a misunderstanding: the measure was open to all sorts of democratic negotiation. But that only served to further muddy the issue. The next day Premier Pierre Mauroy reaffirmed the original plan, provoking the pro-Chirac Le Figaro to deride the government as a “hesitation waltz.”
Indeed, the furore pointed up the unsettling fact that once again the Socialists had rushed into legislation that was poorly thought out and exposed splits within their own ranks. Last spring, having openly disagreed with Justice Minister Robert Badinter over a law re-
vising his own police force’s powers, Defferre then found himself sued for libel by Chirac who, he had suggested, was a dead gambler’s protector. In trying to defend his government Mauroy, too, only deepened its embarrassment. Protesting that the Paris plan was perfectly natural for large cities, he was then left to explain why the Socialists had not decentralized his own fief of Lille, or Marseilles, which has been Defferre territory for 30 years.
Last week the controversy over devolution in Paris spread to the Socialists’ wider plans for decentralization—the most radical reform they have proposed since taking office. News that regional councils in the four overseas departments of Martinique, Guadeloupe, French Guyana and Réunion Island would be disbanded in favor of proportionately elected assemblies brought an angry riposte from Gaullist stalwart Michel Debré, the deputy for Réunion. But the real battle will be the bitter one waged this fall over the status of the city that for centuries has epitomized the centralization of power in France. In taking on Chirac, the Socialists may have severely miscalculated. The partisan unsubtlety of their assault risks turning the mayor into a martyr.
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