Paris Mayoral Frontrunner Anne Hidalgo: 'I Choose Not to Blend In''

"The fact that women run for Mayor of Paris is a sign of the times. There's nothing women can't do. Even so, I long for the day when gender doesn't matter in politics. What matters is who you are, what kind of citizen you are and what you campaign for. "
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As Paris' Deputy Mayor, Anne Hidalgo likes to use school kids for crowd-sourcing: when she needs issues for how to solve a children-related issue, she canvasses kids for ideas. And, if -- as expected -- she's elected Mayor of Paris early next year, Hidalgo plans to focus on children. In fact, she tells Metro, children hold the key to integrating Paris, a city with a precarious gap between immigrants and "regular" residents. Hidalgo ought to know: the Spanish-born socialist is herself a rare female immigrant success story. As I witnessed during our interview in a café next to her campaign office, she's also highly personable: a normal citizen in politician's clothing, as it were.

All the candidates for Mayor of Paris are women. Is this a big deal or a non-issue? In a way, it's a big deal. Politics evolves slowly when it comes to gender equality. The fact that women run for Mayor of Paris is a sign of the times. There's nothing women can't do. Even so, I long for the day when gender doesn't matter in politics. What matters is who you are, what kind of citizen you are and what you campaign for.

Are people too superficial in judging this campaign exactly because women are running for mayor? Paris is different. Parisians have a very critical eye and are open-minded. I believe they're happy to know that as of March, 2014, their Mayor will be a woman. Parisians are not superficial when it comes to electing their mayor. What matters to them is our respective programs.

Immigration and integration is a huge issue in cities all over the world. How do you plan to address that? France's integration model, called the "Republican equality", is very specific. I'm an immigrant myself, so I experienced Republican integration through the education system. A city the size of Paris is a world city, and as such, it must welcome people from everywhere. I want schools to be at the heart of this for Paris. That's where young immigrants learn about the French language and culture. We should never forget Paris was built on this diversity and turned those differences into something positive. Unlike other major cities, Paris is not divided according to ethnic groups. Everything we do, especially when it comes to urbanism, is to avoid creating ghettos. People must all live together. And that's a very French idea.

Education sounds like a great idea, but in reality immigrants often live isolated in specific neighborhoods and therefore feel they're not part of society... That's why I've decided to put the children at the heart of integration in my program. Children go to state schools and that's where this living together happens. Parents should be integrated in our society through their children and this school life. We've created support groups to help the parents understand what's going on in their child's life. We focus on the women too, as they're often at the core of the whole family. It's a tricky issue every major city has to deal with.

As a Spanish-born woman, you're in a way an outsider. Have you had to face any problems due to your gender or your origins? Of course. But those were very different days. I arrived in France at a time of full employment and extra workforce was needed. Today unemployment is high. I was lucky to have teachers who helped my parents understand things. They didn't speak French then, and I worked my way up thanks to school. I had to face racism, too. For example, some teachers didn't want immigrants to do too well in class. But I prefer to remember the good things. Even though the economic crisis is at a high right now, all children should be given the opportunity to develop their skills and excel in school. And remember that many young immigrants create societies and jobs. This is a chance for us all.

Most French leaders have attended the same elite schools and universities. Is France today a meritocracy? I'm aware that statistics show that only around 5% of immigrant and working-class children go to university. Yet I believe France is a meritocracy, and President Hollande has made education a priority. Paris can be a test lab in a way and help support the national schooling system. My own background is a motivator and explains why I so strongly believe in Paris as a world city and in education. Every politician says education is important. How, exactly, would you do this? I believe children should more involved as citizens. I've asked kids to think of what they would like Paris to be. And they've come up with lots of ideas! Some are very funny, but some are very interesting. It's important to see the city through their eyes, as children are more open-minded than us adults. This idea comes from my experience as Deputy Mayor in charge of urbanism. A few years ago, I asked secondary school kids to give us ideas on how they would like their new school to be built. When it comes to rebuilding a school, it's good not just to listen to architects and adults.

What ideas have they come up with for your campaign? For example, umbrellas on each Vélib' [free bikes] (laughs). On a more serious note, they've pointed out that there are more and more wild animals in the city. So they suggested we build an animal shelter in the city center where animals can be treated by vets and protected. That's an idea I'll use in my campaign!

The Dominique Strauss-Kahn case brought the world's attention to sleazy male politicians in France. How does the affair impact women's career prospects in politics? The case was a caricature. The allegations were very serious, but the image the case gave of France's politicians is wrong. Thankfully, only a very few politicians act like this, and it doesn't represent French politics at all. Sure, there is male chauvinism. It's not easy for a woman to run for office without having her credibility and skills questioned. But I'm lucky to be in Paris. The Parisians are very open-minded. Besides, 53% of the population here is female, which helps.

So, what you're saying is that you have to prove you're competent whereas the man against you doesn't? Of course. As a result, women work twice as hard! I choose not to blend in. I'm a woman and proud of it. I like to build things, create things. Before my political career, I worked as a work inspector. I was 23 then and I learned how to be an authority figure. But I didn't want to be aggressive, and I still don't. If you want to be respected, you have to show respect too.

Your own biography is a tale of European integration. How do you view the current state of Europe? Europe has ground to a political, social and economic halt, but we have no future outside Europe. Today it looks more like a technocrats' Europe, and that's what's killing the European dream. It's inconceivable that a continent with 508 million people should be stuck, especially when you consider the incredible resources you can find there, including political stability. But I believe large cities have a role to play in advancing Europe. For example, I've been in talks with London Mayor Boris Johnson to create a European education program.