In a resurgent French town, a moderate right-wing voice (+video)

The winner of Sunday's mayoral election, Mayor Alain Juppé, a former prime minister, inspires optimism among voters at a time when far-right parties are ascendant in France.

By , Staff writer

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    Alain Juppe, former French prime minister and current Mayor of Bordeaux, spoke with supporters as he campaigned for the municipal elections in Bordeaux, southwestern France, March 20, 2014.
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To outsiders, Bordeaux is synonymous with wine. But here in France, the city is a study in urban transformation.

On a weekend visit, I asked locals for recommendations of where to experience the “vibe” of a place that’s recently gone from a sleepy provincial town to a resurgent tourist hub. The city’s transformation is largely the achievement of Mayor Alain Juppé, who cleaned up the 18th-century facades, renovated the waterfront, and installed a slick tram system across the city. Mr. Juppé, a former prime minister of France, has been the city’s head since 1995, and was reelected Sunday to his fourth term in office – sealing his image as one of the leading figures of the French center-right.  

The locals directed me to the Marché des Capucins, the city’s largest food market, and my eye immediately went to the heaping platters of oysters, shrimp, crab legs, and sea snails at a restaurant called “Chez Jean-Mi.”

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It was a long wait, but I was finally seated next to a boisterous table of 20. And that’s when I realized that the recommendation could not have been more spot-on: That party included Juppé himself, enjoying a Saturday lunch the day before local elections.

As I cracked crabs’ legs and scooped up raw oysters, I asked our young waiter in what ways Bordeaux was changing. “It’s a completely different city than when I was growing up,” he said. “Now tourists come here to see the city, to see even this place [the market].”

As Juppé stood up, I managed to pull myself away from my lunch – incidentally the best seafood I’ve had in at least a decade – to introduce myself. A local woman also walked up to berate him for the lack of parking on Bordeaux streets. But most residents give the mayor credit for modernizing the city and putting it back on the tourist map, which he said is part of his vision for the future of Bordeaux. “I will continue to keep doing this,” he said.

As the following day's municipal elections showed, most locals believe him. Juppé won by a significant margin in the election’s first round, with 60 percent of the vote. His reelection was a welcome victory for his center-right political party, the UMP, at a time when its far-right political competitor is quickly gaining ground.

And even as the French public opinion polls register increasing pessimism across the country, Bordeaux is experiencing a wave of optimism that helped give Juppé such a clear mandate.

Elsewhere in France, advances made by the far-right National Front (FN), led by Marine Le Pen, became the dominant theme of the elections’ first round. Compared to the UMP and the Socialists, the FN has just a fraction of representation in France’s 36,000 municipalities, but the party fared substantially better than expected on Sunday. Ms. Le Pen joyously declared “the end of the bipolarization of the political scene” after yesterday’s results.

The clear victory of Juppé, of course, will do nothing to assuage concerns of the ruling Socialists, who lost significant ground and did worse than expected in the most important race of the day, Paris. Overall, the UMP captured about 47 percent of all local votes combined, according to local media tallies, while the Socialists won about 38 percent. (The FN took about 5 percent of the vote nationwide.) Official results will be out later today or tomorrow.

French voters will once again head to the polls next Sunday, for the second round of municipal elections in places where no candidate mustered 50 percent of the vote – but not in Bordeaux. If next Sunday is anything like the last, Bordeaux residents will be out strolling along the waterfront and eating oysters at the Sunday market, knowing who will be their mayor.

Or they might be thinking about a more momentous future race. Juppé is considered a possible contender for the national leadership of the UMP ahead of France's 2017 presidential elections. 

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