Paris mayor makes a stand against consumer culture
Big department stores to stay closed on Sundays for sake of Parisiens’ intellectual and spiritual life
Bertrand Delanoe isn't a man easily ignored. Elected in 2001 as the first left-wing mayor of Paris for 130 years, the 60-year-old is openly gay, has survived an assassination attempt and harbours ambitions of becoming president of France. Now the stylish Socialist has taken on the might of the big department stores against Sunday trading, decreeing that Paris is not ready for "a world where consumerism reigns supreme".
Among Delanoe's more outlandish, and successful, innovations to date in the French capital are 'Paris Plage', importing the beach to a mile-long stretch of the Seine so Parisians can enjoy the sand and sun without the hassle of a trip to the coast.
Then there's 'Velib', the rent-a-bicycle scheme now being copied around the world, and also 'Nuit Blanche', when Paris's art galleries and museums stay open for one night of the year. At the first Nuit Blanche in 2002 Delanoe was stabbed by a deranged immigrant, who later told police he wanted to kill "politicians, socialists and gays".
Delanoe spent two weeks in hospital recovering from the attack but it seems to have had little long-lasting effect. It's characteristic of a politician who is as smart and smooth as he is tough and uncompromising.
After Paris lost the right to host the 2012 Olympics, Delanoe implied the British had been perfidious in their dealings with the International Olympic Committee during the bidding process in Singapore. "Yesterday evening, when I went to bed, there were people coming down after a series of interviews with Prime Minister Blair," Delanoe told reporters. "I didn't know that's what it took. Me, I thought you had to have the best presentation."
He's also criticised the Vatican for its views on homosexuality and two years ago Delanoe's name appeared on an al-Qaeda hit-list, presumably because of his sexuality.
Delanoe was born in Tunisia to conservative French parents and attributes his socialism to the day in 1961 when he witnessed French troops firing on a crowd of locals in what came to be known as the Battle of Bizerte. "I thought an Arab should be equal to a Frenchman," Delanoe has since said. "That was my first political thought. That's how, because of colonialism, I began to identify with the left".
He came to France when he was 14, studied economics at the university of Toulouse and joined the Socialist party when he was 21. Nurtured by François Mitterand, Delanoe rose up through the ranks and in 1995 first tried to become mayor of Paris. Six years later he tried again, and this time triumphed, winning the vote of the 'Bourgeois Bohemians' who for decades had remained loyal to the right.
Delanoe was re-elected in 2008 for a second term, increasing his share of the vote to 58 percent in the process and encouraging many of his supporters to believe he will launch a bid to become President of France in 2012. But in the meantime his focus is with Paris. Plans are afoot to introduce 'Autolib', an electric car version of Velib, where drivers will be able to collect a car from one of 1,000 rental stands day or night using only a credit card.
But one innovation Delanoe is determined to resist is Sunday shopping. Ever since President Nicolas Sarkozy announced last year – to the wrath of the church and the unions – a change in legislation to allow more Sunday trading, Delanoe has been an impassioned defender of the Sabbath as a day of rest. On Monday the Paris City Council voted on whether to relax the restrictive Sunday trading laws in Paris, laws that have been in place since 1906 for all but bakers and butchers.
Despite the fact that the city's Chamber of Commerce had pleaded for a relaxation of the Sunday ban, estimating that allowing the big department stores to open would create 600 much-needed jobs, the council voted 'Non'. It was Delanoe who swayed them, arguing with his customary eloquence that Paris needed one quiet day a week to give its people "time to breathe".
He also posed a question to the Council that clearly struck a chord: "Do you want a world where consumerism reigns supreme? Or a world that allows for silence, intimacy, culture, privacy, family life as well as intellectual and spiritual life?"
Commendable, but one might also say contradictory. One of Delanoe's campaign slogans during the 2001 mayoral race was "Changeons d'ère" ("Let's change eras"), as he urged Parisians to oust the Right. But it appears that Sunday shopping is one era Delanoe has no intention of changing. ·
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