Hidalgo, 62, was a virtual unknown seven years ago when she succeeded her former mentor and boss, Bertrand Delanoë, as mayor of Paris — a position seen as a stepping stone to the presidency.
The reserved former labour inspector, dismissed by critics as an “apparatchik”, struggled to emerge from his shadow.
But Hidalgo, who grew up in a housing estate near Lyon in a family of Spanish immigrants that fled dictator Francisco Franco’s rule when she was two, is used to being underestimated.
Responding to polls that show her winning only between seven and nine percent of the vote for president, she told Paris Match magazine last month: “All my life I’ve proved the polls wrong.”
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“As the daughter of a labourer and a seamstress who did not attend an elite school, I had no chance of becoming mayor of Paris,” she said.
Attacks, floods, fire
Since winning the mayor’s office in 2014, she has had to steer the city through a multitude of crises, from a string of terror attacks to the “yellow vest” revolt of 2018 and 2019 and the fire that nearly destroyed Notre-Dame cathedral.
In an interview in March 2020 with The Guardian newspaper, she described her experience “like piloting a catamaran in an almost permanent force 7-9 wind”.
Yet her first term as Paris supremo — Hidalgo handily won re-election in 2020 — will probably best be remembered for the battle over her decision to pedestrianise a busy road running along the right bank of the Seine, and the chaotic rollout of a bike-sharing scheme.
Hidalgo makes no bones about her anti-car stance.
Her naysayers, she said in 2016, were in “complete denial about the climate emergency” that had brought nearly 200 countries together in Paris a year earlier to combat global warming.
But no sooner had one controversy died down than another flared.
Her critics accused her of failing to get tough on petty crime, of letting swarms of rats invade public parks, and generally allowing the world’s most-visited city to become dirty and unsightly.
Residents used the #saccageparis (Trashed Paris) hashtag to post pictures of rubbish piling up on the streets, of dilapidated public benches and scooters discarded on the pavement, among other ills.
Hidalgo has blamed the disorder on a lack of civic spirit and accused her critics of mounting a smear campaign.
Responding to accusations of authoritarianism in her 2018 book “Respirer” (Breathe), the mother-of-three remarked: “What passes for authority in a man becomes authoritarianism in a woman.”
‘Time for a woman’
Among her achievements, she points to a cycling revolution, brought about by the doubling of Paris’s network of cycle lanes since 2015.
Despite her disputed legacy Hidalgo has emerged as one of the few figures capable of uniting the fractured left around an environmentalist platform.
“Through her diligence and the way she has managed France’s biggest city she has shown that she could be the one,” Socialist party leader Olivier Faure said in June.
“And maybe the time for a woman has also come.”
Hidalgo has also argued the case for having a woman as president.
She is not the only woman eyeing the Elysee Palace — far-right leader Marine Le Pen and centre-right politician, Valerie Pecresse, have also thrown their hats into the ring.
Alluding to record low levels of voter turnout in recent elections, Hidalgo says: “A woman can change the relationship (of the French) with people in power.”