PARIS — The French left won control of Paris City Hall on Sunday in municipal elections that spelled the end of 130 years of right-wing rule over the capital and shook the power base of conservative President Jacques Chirac.
The Socialist Party candidate for mayor, Bertrand Delanoe, clasped his hands over his head and called his historic victory the "renewal of democracy" in Paris.
"I'll be the mayor of all Parisians," he promised.
Delanoe's supporters celebrated with champagne--a hint that this was a vote for change rather than for a major ideological shift in the city on the Seine.
The Socialists and allied Greens party also won a narrow victory in Lyons, France's second-largest city and another right-wing stronghold. But the conservatives held on to Toulouse and generally did better than the unified left in municipal elections throughout the country, wresting control of Strasbourg, Rouen and Orleans.
Both sides will be dissecting the results for insights into the mood of the country ahead of next year's presidential and legislative elections, when Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin is expected to challenge Chirac for France's highest office.
Chirac served as mayor of Paris for 18 years and passed the mantle to a handpicked successor when he took office as head of state. The loss of this conservative bastion is a personal blow for the president.
The newly elected mayor was a little-known politician until a year ago when he became his party's third-choice candidate after the first two contenders dropped out of the race. He reinforced his reputation as a colorless figure by wearing a gray suit and black and white tie for his victory statement.
Delanoe, 50, took the lead in the first round of elections March 11 and moved quickly to unite with the Greens for the final round Sunday. Three reliable exit polls gave him 50% of the votes, compared with 36% for the official rightist candidate, Philippe Seguin.
Under the district voting system in Paris, this would give Delanoe the votes of 89 members of the 163-seat City Council--comfortably more than the 82 needed to be elected mayor.
Partial official results confirmed the polls. Complete official results are due today.
Parisians who abandoned bistros for the polls Sunday, with dogs and children in tow, said they felt it was time for a change in the city's ruling elite.
"The same team has been leading for too long," said Elisabeth Clement, 51, a teacher who voted at a municipal hall near the Paris stock exchange in the key 2nd arrondissement.
The last time the left ruled Paris was in 1871 during the Franco-Prussian War. The short-lived Commune was crushed by provincial troops loyal to a bourgeois government based at Versailles. After that, French national authorities did not allow Parisians to pick their own mayor until 1977.
"I voted for a change from the right and its system," said Fabien Capoen, 30, an engineer. "There has been too much corruption and bribery."
Chirac's handpicked successor for mayor, Jean Tiberi, was accused of cronyism and vote-rigging. Chirac's Rally for the Republic party expelled Tiberi, but then he ran against Seguin, the former speaker of the National Assembly, splitting the right-wing vote.
Tiberi and Seguin failed to form an alliance for the final round, as the Socialists and Greens did, but Tiberi denied any responsibility for the defeat.
"I believe that my team and I fought very well in Paris. We offered unity in every district, so we are not to blame," he said.
Delanoe campaigned against corruption, but also for local issues, such as improving day care, public transportation and environmental protection, that are important to the young families and upwardly mobile professionals transforming some of the city's working-class neighborhoods.
Voters said they liked the fact that he was a grass-roots Paris politician rather than an outsider, as Seguin was perceived to be.
The same preference for local politicians helped Chirac's party in other cities, however. Some of Jospin's most prominent Cabinet ministers lost their bids to win or hold on to second jobs as town mayors.
Education Minister Jack Lang failed to keep his post as mayor of Blois, while Employment Minister Elisabeth Guigou and European Affairs Minister Pierre Moscovici were defeated in their efforts to unseat right-wing mayors.
"The voters have sent us a clear message. What concerns them most is having a mayor who is there for them all the time," Guigou said as she conceded defeat in Avignon.
The councils in most of France's 36,000 cities, towns and villages will meet Friday to pick new mayors. Paris' council, of which Delanoe is a member, will meet Sunday to chose him from among the councilors elected in its 20 districts.
"Today, Parisians freely decided to make a change in the capital," Delanoe told his supporters. "It is a choice for the renewal of culture and democracy and also for a deep change in the city's everyday management."