The world’s best mayor is a French communist


Philippe Rio, the Communist mayor of Grigny, France, was voted the world’s best mayor. PHOTO/Jacques Paquier / Flickr

Philippe Rio from Grigny, south of Paris, has been voted the world’s best mayor. He told Jacobin about the local social programs that have made his Communist administration a global success story.

Grigny isn’t often in the news for good reasons. The poorest city in France, this banlieue south of Paris is marked by massive unemployment and abandoned housing estates. For much of French media, Grigny is the very image of a “no-go zone”: one of its sons, Amedy Coulibaly, murdered four people at a Kosher supermarket in the 2015 terrorist attacks.

Yet there is also a fight to save the city from its plight — led by local mayor Philippe Rio, a member of the French Communist Party. In 2017, he organized the “Appeal from Grigny,” signed by hundreds of other mayors calling for investment in the banlieues. His innovative social programs and a COVID response based on locally issued emergency food vouchers this year saw him handed the biennial “best mayor in the world” award.

The prize given by the World Mayor Foundation hadn’t gone to a Communist before (and even this time around it was co-awarded to Rotterdam’s mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb, a member of the Dutch Labour Party). But Philippe Rio’s administration has also had a wider impact in his homeland, especially through its lifelong education programs and its success in geothermal energy production, which has slashed residents’ bills.

Jacobin’s David Broder spoke to the mayor about life in Grigny, his political engagement, and the lessons of French municipal communism.


You’ve been named the world’s best mayor after being nominated by Grigny residents and other elected officials. What does this recognition mean for you — and the city you represent?


First, we had the surprise to be recognized among thirty-two cities, including Washington, Milwaukee, Bogotá, Buenos Aires, and New Delhi, as a city that had taken a lot of action during COVID-19 and in fighting poverty — both themes the London foundation focused on. Then, to be elected the world’s best mayor — well, that was something we never dreamed of.

We’re one of those areas that some wrongly call “no-go zones,” but which in truth express this country’s extreme inequalities. France has many billionaires, but Paris also has pockets of deep poverty and social and spatial segregation. In Grigny, half the population is under thirty and half the population is below the poverty line. This is France’s poorest city.

During the lockdown, we did what every town hall in France had to do — we reacted. And I emphasize the “we.” A mayor isn’t a superhero — we acted collectively to serve the public. During the onset of the pandemic, we built up a barrier against the incoming tsunami. Here the health care crisis immediately meant a social crisis; whenever there are economic setbacks, it’s us who suffer it quickest, and it takes time to pick ourselves back up again. It was the same with the 2008 subprime crisis: we’ve recovered from it somewhat, but we still aren’t at the level of before.

So, faced with an abrupt shock, we simply did our job: distributing masks, being in contact with the population, dealing with the food crisis.

Areas like ours are always at the heart of French political debate, and always being mistreated by the media — Éric Zemmour’s always banging on about the banlieues, security, and immigration. But it’s communities like ours that are building France’s future. So folks who live in Grigny suffer these fascist politicians’ messages that seek to exclude whole sections of the population.

When there’s Olympic champions or actors from the banlieue who make it in the United States, people clap. But as for the rest, we’re insulted and mistreated. So this award lifted our hearts, people called me up saying we’re the world champions. Life is hard here. But we’ve succeeded in our efforts and been recognized for them internationally. Even if the French media present us negatively, what they say about us isn’t true. That’s a tribute to Grigny as a working-class city, but also to the banlieues more generally. They, too, can be proud of our success.

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