Historic all-women tussle for Paris mayor's post

For the first time in the history of Paris, the battle for the mayor's office -- viewed as a springboard to higher office -- is shaping to be an all-female affair in a watershed step forward for women.

Although Socialist Mayor Bertrand Delanoe only steps down next year, at least three women have already thrown their hats into the ring to replace him, a surprise move in a country where top jobs have traditionally been a male preserve.

Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, the glamorous former spokeswoman of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, was the first to announce her intention to contest.

"It took me a long time to make" the decision, said the 39-year-old, a prominent member of the right-wing UMP party. "But it comes from a real commitment, a serious commitment, to which I will devote all my heart and energy."

But there is in-house rivalry in the shape of another Sarkozy protege, Rachida Dati, his former justice minister and a 47-year-old single mother of North African origin.

Kosciusko-Morizet is endorsed by former prime minister Francois Fillon while Dati is backed by Jean-Francois Cope, who has locked horns with Fillon to lead the UMP.

The unchallenged Socialist candidate is deputy mayor Anne Hidalgo, 53, a close friend of the popular Delanoe, who was first elected in 2001 and has declared he will not be seeking a third mandate after two six-year terms.

Another potential candidate is Housing Minister Cecile Duflot, 37, from the Green party, who recently told a French newspaper that "nothing was excluded" as far as she was concerned.

France's Socialist President Francois Hollande had pledged to usher in gender parity during his election campaign and his 34-member cabinet is split down the middle between men and women.

"The challenge -- three women for Paris -- I find that fascinating," said Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a member of the European Parliament and a leading player in the 1968 student riots that rocked France.

"With the three nominations, France is keeping to its promise of equality, it's the glass ceiling breaking," said government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem.

Whoever succeeds Delanoe has a tough act to follow.

The Socialist, who was largely unknown before a left-wing alliance won control of the city council for the first time since the 1871 Paris commune, has won accolades for improving the quality of life of residents.

His innovations including building temporary beaches along the banks of the River Seine for families unable to take summer vacations to get a feel of a seaside holiday, introducing cheap bicycle and electric car rentals throughout the city to reduce pollution and promoting pedestrian shopping streets.

Delanoe was also one of the first major French politicians to announce that he was gay.

While the Socialists are all set for the election, the UMP however faces the prospect of a potentially divisive primary to choose its candidate.

Polls suggest that Kosciusko-Morizet, the mayor of the town of Longjumeau just outside Paris, is generally more popular than Dati, whose career has been marked by controversy including a legal dispute with a French billionaire she says is the father of her daughter.

In an early sign of what is expected to be a bitter contest, Kosciusko-Morizet on Sunday slammed Hidalgo for being "nervous" and "aggressive".

Hidalgo says Kosciusko-Morizet only wants to use the mayor's office as a springboard to the presidency, like former president Jacques Chirac who was Paris mayor.

Several UMP officials have however voiced the hope that Kosciusko-Morizet and Dati can come to an "understanding," eliminating the need for a primary.

Gender parity in the legislature is a long way off in France, which only gave women voting rights in 1945. Women only account for 26 percent in the 577-seat National Assembly.

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