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How Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo Is Future-Proofing The City Of Light

With a massive new incubator and bold environmental-protection projects, Paris is quickly becoming a beacon of innovation.

How Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo Is Future-Proofing The City Of Light
Sudden impact: “When you make a decision as a mayor, you immediately see positive and negative effects.” says Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo. Photos: Paul Rousteau Photos: Paul Rousteau

Fast Company: London and Paris have been cultural and economic rivals for centuries. Now, post-Brexit, Paris is angling to replace London as Europe’s financial center. How has the dynamic between the two cities changed?

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Anne Hidalgo: It’s true that Brexit creates a new situation for London and Paris. There’s competition, but there’s also cooperation. We’re both big cities with progressive mayors. [London mayor] Sadiq Khan and I thought that there might be a way to take advantage of this situation by offering London companies the possibility of setting up in Paris and Parisian companies to do so in London—we talked about it when he came to Paris in August. Sadiq Khan is someone I admire. His plan for his city is very humanist, and I work with him frequently on pollution [issues]. This partnership is very important.

FC: One of your strategies to attract business is the “Choose Paris” initiative, which establishes an information office for companies considering leaving London. Why should they choose Paris, as opposed to Frankfurt or Dublin?

AH: We’re comparable to London in size, in cosmopolitanism, and in cultural makeup, which is no small thing. We’re also just a stone’s throw from London. And Paris is business-friendly. We’re ranked fourth overall and first for living conditions in the [latest] Global Power City Index and fourth overall in the Cities of Opportunity Index. We have more headquarters of big companies than any other European city. We’re ranked first in Europe for the creation of startups; we launch 1,500 startups each year in Paris. We now have 60 incubators in the city, with 15 new ones planned. We have 80 coworking spaces, 23 fabrication labs that work with prominent incubators like Cargo, the biggest incubator in Europe. [Paris’s new] Station F will be the biggest incubator in the world and host 1,000 startups under the management of [billionaire telecom entrepreneur] Xavier Niel. So we’re definitely in an advantageous position. Just a few weeks ago, a big bank [HSBC] decided to move its base to Paris, with 1,000 employees. It had its choice of big European cities, and it went for Paris.

Startup city: Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg launches mega-incubator Station F in January alongside, from left, Hidalgo, Station F director Roxanne Varza, and Iliad founder Xavier Niel.Photo: Pascal Sittler/REA/Redux

FC: You mentioned Station F, a 34,000-square-meter converted railway depot in the 13th arrondissement that opens in April. Facebook is a founding partner and will have an 80-desk “startup garage” there. What does that mean?

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AH: [Facebook COO] Sheryl Sandberg came to Station F and told us, “You have the equivalent of our Silicon Valley garages,” which is quite true. Paris made the leap into the digital economy almost 10 years ago, and a central Parisian neighborhood called le Sentier underwent a dramatic transformation. Le Sentier used to be a wholesale textile neighborhood, but the merchants all closed one after another. We said that since the digital economy was really developing, we could make these industrial and commercial buildings in the heart of Paris available for this new, burgeoning economy.

FC: What are your hopes for Station F? How will you define success?

AH: Our [business-development sector] is very much linked to our universities and research centers. We have incubators that help create medical-based companies, for instance. Broadly speaking, I want the digital economy to work in service of the biggest challenge that our planet is facing: climate change. We can make Paris a home to green, ecological finance. We have to move toward becoming a smart city, toward open data, toward better managing our energy needs, looking for renewable, recyclable energy. So I’d like to see projects coming out of Station F that combine the digital revolution and climate change with the goal of saving the planet. Because really, that’s what it’s all about.

“We have to dare,” says Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo of fighting climate change, “because tomorrow it will be too late.”Photos: Paul Rousteau

FC: You’ve been tackling climate change since you started your term as mayor, in 2014. Former New York City mayor and philanthropist Michael Bloomberg has been a strong ally. He is the board president of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, and you are the chair. Has his environmental work, especially as a former mayor, been a model for you?

AH: Michael Bloomberg is a great visionary. He’s unafraid, and he dares. And we have to dare. Big cities are responsible for 70% of greenhouse-gas emissions. We have a political responsibility, as mayors, to say, “We must act now.” Because tomorrow it will be too late. The climate accord [among nearly 200 United Nations members] that was signed in Paris [in 2015] also gives Paris a responsibility to be at the forefront of the fight. I wanted to move very quickly with my team to fight pollution. Today, the industrial sector must invest in technology and new nonfossil energy. There have been great successes all over the world. In the U.S., Tesla’s success should serve as an example to many entrepreneurs.

FC: You’ve already reduced the number of cars in the city, launched an electric car-sharing service, Autolib’, and increased the number of green spaces. A massive subway-expansion project, the Grand Paris Express, and an electric tram-bus are under way. What do you think will be the next big innovation in cities’ fight against climate change?

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AH: I really believe in the development of river transport. Most of the world’s big cities were built on riverbanks, an advantage we have to use to reduce our reliance on polluting cars. At the end of 2015, I supported a project called Sea Bubbles, carried out by French yachtsman Alain Thébault. It consists of developing small taxi boats powered by currents and solar energy. It is an environmentally friendly solution, without any harmful effects, and very functional. French engineers are making prototypes. Paris will be the first city in the world to test them out, next June. I plan to pre­sent this innovation to the American mayor members of the C40, during my trip to Chicago in mid-March.

FC: With Marine Le Pen a leading candidate for the French presidency, the far right is on the rise in national politics in France—and elsewhere in Europe, and in the United States. What does that mean for you, as a progressive, socialist mayor? Does it make your job more difficult?

AH: Populism is on the rise everywhere. And yes, mayors have a very important role . . . in challenging how our political parties operate. Governments at the mayoral level are on a human scale. When you make a decision as a mayor, you immediately see positive and negative effects. We’re in direct contact with the population—with citizens, companies, NGOs. And we really are the front line on globalization, which I see as a positive. Personally, I’d much rather be optimistic, even if the world can be anxiety-inducing. American cities, which are often led by progressives, are going to be extremely important pockets of resistance to Donald Trump’s populism. Donald Trump is not the one who’s going to decide whether he applies the Paris Agreement or not. It’s the cities.

Lifting spirits: Designed by architect Julien Beller, the welcome center of a temporary new refugee shelter is inflatable.Photo: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images

FC: Over the past few months, Paris has opened two new refugee centers (one designed by activist architect Julien Beller). Has your sense of responsibility to the refugee community changed since the Trump administration’s attempted ban?

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AH: Since 2015, tens of thousands of refugees, hoping to escape the war in their countries, have arrived in France. My duty, as mayor, was to set up accommodations in Paris to welcome them, to allow them to rest, to take care of themselves, to learn about their rights, and to begin administrative procedures that will help them integrate in France long term. We have helped more than 35,000 people. I was able to rely on the exceptional solidarity of the Parisians. My belief is that the diversity of our population is an asset. I know that many Democratic mayors share this vision. I’ve been closely watching their action in support of “sanctuary” cities for undocumented migrants. I salute the commitment of Bill de Blasio, Muriel Bowser, Edwin M. Lee, Rahm Emanuel, and many others. These mayors show courage and conviction. History will prove them right.

This interview was conducted in French and translated.


30-Second Bio: Anne Hidalgo

Title: Mayor of Paris

Education: Master of social work; master of advanced studies, social and union law; Institute of Labor Studies, University of Lyon

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Nationality: French and Spanish. Hidalgo was born in San Fernando, Spain, and immigrated to Lyon, France, with her parents and older sister at age 2. “I am European,” she says.

Political party: Socialist

Previous jobs: Worked as a civil servant overseeing labor law nationwide before joining then–Prime Minister Lionel Jospin’s cabinet in 1997. She was first deputy mayor of Paris from 2001 to 2014.

Biggest priority: Fighting climate change, which she calls “the greatest challenge of our century. It encourages us to innovate in the fields of transportation, housing, architecture, and food. Investing heavily in this area means preparing for the future.”