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Paris Mayoral Race

Covid crisis colours former health minster Buzyn's chances for Mayor of Paris

Agnès Buzyn
Agnès Buzyn Julien De Rosa/Pool via REUTERS
5 min

Agnès Buzyn’s sobbing, obviously reluctant farewell to her team when she stepped down as health minister in February signalled a woman who had clearly not chosen to leave.

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She had been pressured by Macron to step down and replace Benjamin Griveaux, the LREM party candidate for Mayor of Paris who was forced to withdraw after a sex-tape affair.

Opposition parties criticized the decision to remove a health minister even as Covid-19 gathered pace and Buzyn’s campaign was hampered from the start by the sense that she really doesn’t want to be Mayor of Paris.

From bad to worse

In the first round, held as fear gripped the city just 2 days before Lockdown, she came third, behind the right wing LR candidate Rachida Dati and way behind incumbent Socialist Anne Hidalgo. Turnout was low.

The following day, exhausted and angry, she reduced her chances still further, lashing out in an extraordinary interview with Le Monde newspaper.

She said the vote should never have gone ahead and labelled it a “masquerade”. She claimed Macron had not heeded her warning in January and that she had cried on leaving the Health ministry because she knew that a [Covid-19] “tsunami wave” was on its way.

The comments stunned the political class and led to judicial proceedings.

She and other officials are now under investigation over accusations that they failed to make adequate preparations and willfully downplayed what they knew was an extremely serious health threat. As health minister, she will be the target of some of the strongest criticism.

Back in the fray

Many people expected Buzyn to withdraw her candidacy but she is now back in the fray campaigning for round 2 after returning to her old job as a doctor during lockdown.

Writing in the Left-leaning L’Obs magazine, journalist Marie Gichoux asserts that Buzyn had no choice but to stay in the race. Her old colleagues are furious and little inclined to shield her in any official or judicial enquiry, reckons Gichoux. By staying in the race, she can at least conscript their support.

Buzyn now says the word “masquerade” was ill-chosen and claims that she simply had a growing conviction that if the virus took hold in France during March, it would be difficult to stage the elections.

She insists she’s keen to explain her role to the Senate Committee which will examine the government’s handling of the Covid crisis.

But she is already the subject of considerable condemnation on social media and has been given police protection following death threats and a physical assault.  

Who is she?

Agnès Buzyn is a Parisian. She was born in the city in 1962 and later trained in the capital as a haematologist.

She held positions on several public scientific and medical bodies before becoming a minister in 2107.

Her husband’s job as director of the National Institute for Health and Medical Research, a body partly supervised by the Health ministry, created concerns about conflicts of interest, and the investigative newspaper Le Canard Enchainé maintains she threatened to resign if his position was not renewed in 2018. He was re appointed but then stood down.

As health minister she ordered an increase in the number of compulsory vaccinations for children in France and from June 2019, she struggled to deal with a major hospital strike movement intended to highlight alleged underfunding and shortages.

In a report released on June 4th, following a Senate enquiry, she was criticized for a “slow and inadequate” reaction to the possible health risks associated with a fire in the Lubrizol chemical factory in Rouen in September 2019.

Her father was an Auschwitz survivor from Poland. Buzyn’s mother, was sheltered during the Nazi occupation of France by a widow, Marie Lacroix, who was later honoured as one of the Righteous Among Nations.

What would she do as Mayor of Paris?

Her key area of interest, hospitals and healthcare for Parisians are not the responsibilities of a Paris Mayor, falling squarely under the control of the health ministry.

She says her priority if elected would be getting the capital’s economy back on track and she has announced a “Marshall Plan” with a year-long tax holiday for artisans, small businesses and restaurants in difficulty.

She would also them to extend their opening hours, after dialogue with trade unions.

Buzyn insists she would not increase local taxes for Parisians and hints that in the wake of the Covid crisis, her previous aim of tackling the capital’s debt will no longer be a top priority. That said, she is highly critical what she claims is a 6 billion euro debt incurred under Anne Hidalgo’s term as Mayor before the crisis.

She backs Hidalgo’s decision to increase the number of cycle lanes in Paris but promises more alternatives for those who can’t use bikes. She considers that Hidalgo did not give enough support to the capital’s electric car hire network, created under her predecessor, which has now been abandoned.

Will she win?

Buzyn's warm and personable style on the campaign trail is an asset and it matches her promise to seek consensus and bring Parisians together.

Following the Griveaux disaster, she initially gained some ground for the LREM party buy everything has now changed amid the Covid crisis.

If the government is judged to have handled well the careful return to a new normal in Paris, she could reap the benefit as Macron’s candidate - the vote will also take place before any conclusive parliamentary or legal judgement on her own role in the emergency.

Will she be seen as a minister who did her utmost to temper an impending catastrophe or one who failed to prepare the country?

Parisians will no doubt elect or reject her on that basis.

 

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