Even Before the Olympics, a Victory Lap for a Fast-Moving French Mayor


The mayor grew up in a building so decrepit — filthy hallways, no private toilets, no showers — that his friends in nearby concrete towers pitied him.

Five decades later, that building — in St.-Ouen, a Paris suburb — is a distant memory, and in its place rises France’s Olympic pride: the athletes’ village, with its architectural-showcase buildings that are outfitted with solar panels, deep-sinking pipes for cooling and heating, and graceful balconies from which to look down on the forest planted below. One-quarter will become public housing after the Games.

“All of a sudden, we have the same feeling of pride as people living in the hypercenter,” said the mayor of St.-Ouen, Karim Bouamrane, 51, using his personal shorthand for the glamorous downtown playgrounds of the elites. “There was Los Angeles, Barcelona, Beijing, London, Sydney and, now, there is St.-Ouen.”

Even before the Olympic Committee choose to invest in this economically depressed northern suburb, St.-Ouen was changing. But since then, and since Mr. Bouamrane’s election as mayor in 2020, the transformation seems turbocharged.

Dump trucks rumble throughout the small city, including in front of the 160-year-old City Hall, where jackhammers and excavators claw at the pavement, following plans to green the adjacent plaza with trees and benches.

At the center of the activity is Mr. Bouamrane, a member of the Socialist Party, who is in the news a lot these days as St.-Ouen prepares to welcome the Olympic athletes.

He’s announcing contracts with universities and colleges, signing partnerships with foreign governments and bringing the American ambassador into a local elementary school to meet students, who scream and wave in excitement during their arrival.

“Self-esteem, self-confidence,” Mr. Bouamrane said. “That’s what’s kids are getting through the Olympics.”

The middle child of an illiterate Moroccan immigrant who came to Paris to work on construction sites to support his siblings back home, Mr. Bouamrane is acutely aware of the power his image offers on classroom visits. But inspiration is not enough — he’s channeling the international spotlight of the Olympic Games to lure new programs, infrastructure and opportunities into his city, so kids, he said, can “become the architects, and not the passive victims, of their lives.”

“I’m using the Olympic Games as a political weapon, in a noble way, to raise awareness and empower a whole generation,” said Mr. Bouamrane, sitting beside Tony Estanguet, the head of the Paris Olympic Committee, at a recent lunch.

Interviewing Mr. Bouamrane feels a bit like racing through a fun house after devouring two cones of cotton candy. He starts stories in English, switches to French, suddenly launches into an impassioned Portuguese — the latest language he’s learning, his fifth. He peppers his breathless paragraphs with citations from Marx, Plato, Sartre, Spike Lee and Pink Floyd. He breaks into the chorus of Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” and then, without warning, starts singing “A Question of Time,” by Depeche Mode.

In the heat of all his talking, he takes off the jacket of the blue three-piece suit he wears like a uniform, along with the beaded bracelets his daughter made him. He pounds one word repeatedly as he speaks: equality.

“He was born with character and confidence,” confided one of his childhood friends, Ahcen Goulmane, an actor.

Mr. Bouamrane enters his office at City Hall, pointing to myriad framed photos and posters crowding the walls. There’s Tommie Smith atop the 1968 Olympic podium in Mexico City raising up his gloved fist, and Sócrates, the Brazilian doctor and star soccer player who opposed the military dictatorship.

“He used football like a weapon, with the same philosophy behind it — equality,” said Mr. Bouamrane, who was the host of a large celebration last month to name a street in the Olympic Village after Sócrates, a stone’s throw from where the mayor’s dilapidated childhood home once sat. Sócrates became one of his inspirations back then and has stuck with him ever since.

“I put that photo first on the wall first day when I was mayor,” Mr. Bouamrane said. By chance, the Brazilian Olympic delegation came to visit and saw the photo. A connection was made, and soon not only was St.-Ouen the host village for the Brazilian team and fans during this summer’s Games, but Mr. Bouamrane also signed a twin-city agreement with Rio de Janeiro.

He has signed a flurry of other partnerships, including one to send young climate activists from St.-Ouen to Belém, Brazil, for next year’s COP30 conference on climate change.

One of the industrial suburbs built on the edge of the city to feed the country’s growth, St.-Ouen had factories that began to close in the 1970s, leaving behind poverty, unemployment and crime. If Parisians ventured there, it was usually for the sprawling flea market that was started by rag pickers chased out of Paris in the 1870s.

Growing up, Mr. Bouamrane and his friend Mr. Goulmane were part of a tight circle, all children of immigrant laborers, who spent their Saturdays together in the library, devouring classic books, newspapers, films and music. They have remained close.

“One thing that Karim taught us is that no one will determine our futures. It will be us,” said Madjid Aggar, 51, another member of their group, who is now an elementary school teacher. “To get there, you need culture and a base. That’s why he was always a good student. It was important for us — not just to succeed academically but to understand the world.”

They all expressed a sense of exclusion that came from living on the least glamorous side of the periphérique the ring highway that encircles Paris, like the medieval walls that protected the elegant palaces, flowering gardens and prestigious universities. Instead of direct racism, they felt a vague social ostracism, they said, and with it, low societal expectations.

Correcting that sense is at the core of Mr. Bouamrane’s political program, which he calls “democratizing excellence.”

“Today in France, people who can evolve and choose their life are in the hypercenters,” said Mr. Bouamrane, who is married with three children. “You have the best schools, the best teachers, the best hospitals, the best connections. If you don’t, you need to work 10 times as hard, and justify yourself all the time.”

After graduating from university with a master’s degree in economics and European law, Mr. Bouamrane landed a management job in a cybersecurity company just as the internet was taking off. The profession offered years of travel, particularly to the United States, where he practiced his English and broadened his worldview, deepening his love for the generous French social security system. It was also, he said, “the first country where I felt respected for my qualities.”

Around the same time in 1995, he was first elected to the local council of St.-Ouen. Later, he joined the Socialist Party, and he would eventually become its spokesman.

Since becoming mayor, Mr. Bouamrane has lured companies, including Tesla, to open offices in St.-Ouen, which, through the additional taxes paid, have helped finance new elementary schools.

A few French colleges have been persuaded to open campuses here, including the respected business school Audencia, with special enrollment programs for local residents. The French American basketball superstar Tony Parker has come on board, agreeing to open an elite sports school in an abandoned sports complex that’s in the midst of a 14 million euro renovation ($15 million) for the Games. It was a social dinner with Mr. Bouamrane that clinched the deal, he said.

“I had a ‘coup de coeur’ — love at first sight — for his vision, his passion and what he wants to accomplish in his city,” said Mr. Parker, a former San Antonio Spurs point guard.

Mr. Bouamrane’s energy and vision have also caught the attention of the country’s Socialist power brokers, like Matthieu Pigasse.

“I want him to be the future of the French left, the social democrats,” said Mr. Pigasse, an investment banker once nicknamed the “Che Guevara of finance.”

Mr. Bouamrane doesn’t hide his national ambitions. He considers it a responsibility to fight against the increasing strength of far-right ideas and politics in his country.

But, for the moment, he’s focused on local people, who lean into his car window to congratulate him on the changes they see.

“This is the France we need to build together,” he said.

Ségolène Le Stradic contributed reporting from Paris.


Source link

Scroll to Top