Even before the Olympics, a victory lap for a fast-moving French mayor

The mayor grew up in a building so decrepit – dirty hallways, no private bathrooms, no showers – that his friends in nearby concrete towers pitied him.

Five decades later, that building – in St.-Ouen, a Parisian suburb – is a distant memory, and in its place stands the French Olympic pride: the athletes' village, with its architectural showcase buildings equipped with solar panels , deep-sunken pipes for cooling and heating, and lovely balconies from which to look down on the planted forest below. A quarter will become public housing after the Games.

“Suddenly, we feel the same feeling of pride as people who live in the hypercenter,” said St.-Ouen mayor Karim Bouamrane, 51, using his personal shorthand for the glamorous elite playgrounds downtown. “There was Los Angeles, Barcelona, ​​​​Beijing, London, Sydney and, now, there is St.-Ouen.”

Even before the Olympic Committee decided to invest in this economically depressed northern suburb, St.-Ouen was changing. But since then, and since Bouamrane's election as mayor in 2020, the transformation appears to have accelerated.

Dump trucks rumble throughout the small town, including past the 160-year-old city hall, where jackhammers and excavators scrape the pavement, following plans to green the adjacent square with trees and benches.

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

He announces contracts with universities and colleges, signs partnerships with foreign governments, and brings the American ambassador to a local elementary school to meet the students, who whoop and wave in excitement as they arrive.

“Self-esteem, self-confidence,” Bouamrane said. “This is what kids get during 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, Bouamrane is acutely aware of the power his image offers during classroom visits. But inspiration isn't enough: He's channeling the international spotlight of the Olympic Games to attract new programs, infrastructure and opportunities to his city, so that kids, he said, can “become the architects, not the passive victims, of their lives”.

“I am using the Olympic Games as a political weapon, in a noble way, to raise awareness and empower an entire generation,” said Bouamrane, sitting next to Tony Estanguet, head of the Paris Olympic Committee, at a recent lunch.

Interviewing Bouamrane is a bit like running into an amusement park after devouring two cones of cotton candy. He begins the stories in English, switches to French, suddenly launches into passionate Portuguese: the latest language he is learning, the fifth. He peppers his breathless paragraphs with quotes 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 Depeche Mode's “A Question of Time.”

In the heat of all his chatter, 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. As she speaks she repeats one word over and over: 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 a myriad of framed photos and posters crowding the walls. There's Tommie Smith atop the 1968 Olympic podium in Mexico City raising his gloved fist, and Sócrates, the Brazilian doctor and soccer star who opposed the military dictatorship.

“He used football as a weapon, with the same philosophy behind it: equality,” said Bouamrane, who last month hosted a big party to name a street in the Olympic Village after Sócrates, a stone's throw from where he once sat the mayor's dilapidated childhood home. Sócrates then became one of his inspirations and has remained with him ever since.

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

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

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

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

“One thing Karim taught us is that no one will determine our future. 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 has always been a good student. It was important to us, not just to succeed academically, but to understand the world.”

They all expressed a sense of exclusion resulting from living in the less glamorous part of the suburbs the ring road that surrounds Paris, like the medieval walls that protected elegant palaces, flower gardens and prestigious universities. Instead of direct racism, they felt vague social ostracism, they said, and with it, low social expectations.

Correcting this sense is at the heart of Bouamrane's political program, which he calls the “democratization of excellence.”

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

After earning a master's degree in economics and European law, Bouamrane landed a management job at a cybersecurity company just as the Internet was taking off. His profession afforded him years of travel, particularly to the United States, where he practiced his English and broadened his worldview, deepening his love of France's generous social security system. It was also, he said, “the first country in which I felt respected for my qualities”.

At the same time, in 1995, he was elected to the St.-Ouen city council for the first time. Subsequently he joined the Socialist Party and would become its spokesperson.

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

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

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

Bouamrane's energy and vision also attracted the attention of the country's socialist power brokers, such as Matthieu Pigasse.

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

Bouamrane does not hide his national ambitions. He believes it is a responsibility to fight against the growing strength of far-right ideas and politics in his country.

But for now he focuses on the locals, who lean out of their car windows to congratulate him on the changes they see.

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

Ségolène Le Stradic contributed reporting from Paris.

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