City bucks national political trend

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In the first round of the 2011 presidential election, Marine le Pen, the charismatic leader of the far right National Front, caused a shock in France by winning almost 18 per cent of the vote, putting her in third place behind François Hollande, the eventual socialist winner, and Nicolas Sarkozy of the centre-right UMP. Not in Lyon.

“Lyon is a moderate city,” says Michel Havard, UMP leader on the Lyon municipal council and a likely candidate to challenge Mayor Gerard Collomb, the socialist incumbent, in the next mayoral election in 2014. “Marine le Pen won half of her national score in Lyon.”

Mr Collomb, a two-term mayor who first won the town hall in 2001, has taken care to stick to the centre ground, adopting a distinctly business-friendly stance, a position he is holding to as he prepares to try to win a third mandate.

He has moved to distance himself from some of Mr Hollande’s more leftwing policies, including on tax. He even shrugs off the description social democrat as being old fashioned.

“I am a big admirer of (Joseph) Schumpeter,” he declares, referring to the Austrian economist and champion of entrepreneurship – not the natural mentor for many French socialists. “I’m a reformist socialist. You create growth by innovation. The cities and countries that will succeed are those that create new products,” he says.

He is hoping this approach will ensure he extends his hold over Lyon. That would not make him the longest serving mayor in the city’s history. That honour belongs to the redoubtable Edouard Herriot who held office from 1905 until 1957, with a break only for the second world war, and who also served on the national stage. But it would be a considerable reign.

Mr Havard is clearly impatient to stop that happening. He criticises Mr Collomb for trying to “appropriate to himself the successes of business” in the city.

A line of attack opened up recently when a bid by Lyon, personally championed by Mr Collomb, to be designated France’s official City of Gastronomy, was spurned by the appointing authorities.

They gave the title jointly to Dijon, Tours and Rungis, an otherwise drab suburb of Paris that is host to Europe’s biggest fresh produce market.

“It was extraordinary,” says an indignant Mr Havard, who, like Mr Collomb himself, regards it as a given that Lyon is the country’s principle centre of gastronomy. “He did not take the contest seriously and it was damaging to the city and to the producers of the area.”

But unseating Mr Collomb may be difficult. With cross-party backing for the major regeneration and development projects under way, including in Lyon’s sometimes riot-prone banlieus, the UMP’s opposition tends to be one of criticism at the margins.

“We can do better on the economy in many areas,” says Mr Havard, citing details of the management of urban projects and the administration of the city.

A swing against the already unpopular national government of Mr Hollande would help Mr Havard and his colleagues. Franck Viart, a local journalist, says: “If the election were held today, Collomb would be re-elected. He’s well positioned, but a lot can happen in a year.”

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