Ken Livingstone, London’s former mayor, has been chosen as Labour’s candidate to run again for the job. He tells Paul McNally what the city has to do to keep ahead of European rivals such as Paris and explains how he landed the 2007 Tour de France and the 2012 Olympic Games.
When was your first trip to France?
I was 21 and was hitch-hiking with a friend through France. We’d been warned France was bad for hitching; cars would come along a road every five minutes. You could stand for three days by the road and not get a lift. We got off the boat at Calais and tried, then we gave up and got the train to Paris.
It was a real pleasure going through the Loire valley in September. We met this wonderful old Communist who bought me my first ever glass of Vouvray and entertained us with
stories about how he cut the throats of Nazi occupying forces.
What were the high points in your eight years as London mayor?
It took me the first three years to get the machine set up. After the success of the congestion charge (launched in 2003), everyone was prepared to listen to me. The congestion charge was followed in 2005 by London beating Paris to win the 2012 Olympics, so it looked as though the administration was working well.
Why do you think the IOC chose London over Paris for the 2012 Games?
I hated having to compete against Paris. There’s a block of votes on the International Olympic Committee hostile to Paris and a block hostile to London. No one was hostile to Madrid, and we knew that, if Madrid got into the final ballot against whichever of us, they would win. So we had a mutual interest in it being a run-off between the two of us.
The problem for Paris was it was told: don’t rock the boat, don’t upset anyone and you’ll get it. Of course, IOC officials say that, but you’ve got 110 people sitting there with their secret ballot and they vote how they want.
I realised about a year before the vote that we had a lot more support than people recognised. The IOC delegates want to go to cities they like. Paris and London are cities that work quite well. The IOC has never recovered from the horror of the games in Atlanta, Georgia. There was no public transport, athletes missed events, there was absolute gridlock.
Putting on the Olympics is a vast operation. You need a city with lots of bed spaces. There will be a lot of people in Paris or Brussels who will benefit from the games being in London. You can get from Paris to London quicker than you can from Sheffield or Manchester.
The French embassy refused to pay the congestion charge: did you expect that?
Initially all the embassies paid, then the American ambassador retired and George W. Bush appointed Robert Tuttle, a Californian car salesman and one of his biggest donors. He was deeply reactionary and refused to pay.
Once he refused to pay, then the Japanese refused, then the Germans, then the French.
If I had had direct control over the police, I’d have clamped their cars and towed them away. But the government was too nervous. They are still refusing to pay to this day. I still think they’re chiselling little crooks. If I’m driving in France, I have to pay the road tolls.
Will we see a congestion charge in Paris?
[Paris mayor]Bertrand Delanoë looked at it, but he sees it as a tax that discriminates unfairly against the poorest. In effect, what you do is take the poorest people off the road. That’s what the pricing mechanism does. He is ideologically unhappy with that.
What advice would you give a French city looking at implementing the congestion charge today?
I had to use crude number-plate recognition technology: that’s not the way to do it. Every car should be fitted with a transponder [like the electronic windscreen badges used on télépéage motorway tolls].
A car goes to a toll booth, the thing goes beep and the barrier opens. That’s the way to do it. It also needs to be paid by direct debit; register your bank details and you never worry again.
How did you get the Tour de France to start in London in 2007?
Under my administration, the number of cyclists on London roads went from one per cent of traffic to about two per cent; still nowhere near other European cities, where it’s in double figures. The Tour de France organisers wanted to come and we thought, “Why not?” We bid and they were up for it. They’re so easy to deal with. The IOC is this huge international bureaucracy; the Tour de France organisers come over, you all go out, have a nice meal, have too much to drink and sort it all out: brilliant. And it’s much cheaper. I had to pay £1.5m for the honour of staging it and we made £80-90m in revenue.
Will they do it again?
I was lobbying before I left office. They would not do another grand départ so soon, but virtually agreed to have a stage and time trials in 2011. That went off the boil and Boris Johnson [Livingstone’s successor] didn’t pursue it.
Do you think Paris keeps a close eye on what the new London mayor is up to?
Yes, they do. Within a month of my losing to Boris, President Sarkozy and Bertrand Delanoë made a lot of changes, dropping restrictions on tall buildings on the assumption that, as Boris is hostile to tall buildings, Paris might be able to pinch ones that would have gone to London.
If London stumbles, it’s a chance for Paris to become the leading European centre and they’d be fools not to take it. That’s been knocked on the head by the recession. If the global economy had carried on booming, developers might look at sites thinking, “Sod it, we’ll go to Paris.”
What links did you have with Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë while in office?
Of all the mayors in the world, I suppose the one who is my closest friend is Bertrand. I think he’s great. He got elected the year after I did  and we became very good friends.
I always think he should run for president. He would be brilliant.
Do you think he stands a chance?
I have no way of knowing. He’s clearly one of the leading figures in the French Socialist party and I assume Ségolène Royal won’t be allowed a second chance. Apart from Martine Aubry and him, who else is there? The advantage he has is he is running the capital city. It’s the focus of his attention all the time and it’s very well run.
What could London learn from the way Paris is run?
We pinch each other’s good ideas. I had desperately been trying to copy his idea of circular trams that link all the suburbs. The other thing I wanted to steal was Paris Plage; I had a plan to do that along the embankment, by the South Bank complex, but Boris scrapped it.
Has Boris Johnson kept up the links with Paris?
Boris, like the rest of the British right, looks to America, not Europe. If I get elected again in 2012, I’ll resume the relationship with Bertrand, unless he has been elected president.
Boris has cancelled a lot of the projects I was going to do, such as Paris Plage and various tram and light rail extensions, so you just reinstate them. There’s very little he has actually initiated, so I’ve not got to unpick anything.
My main complaint about Boris is not that he turned out to be the deeply reactionary bigot that many people feared, but just that he’s just not doing anything.
France appears to have weathered the recession better than the UK. Why is this?
It’s the whole perspective on French life; there are not the same inequalities of wealth, and the social casualties of that, that we have in Britain. France remains a society that has high tax but much better levels of investment: the transport system, the hospitals.
Wherever you go, France looks like it’s a lot better run and certainly a lot more modern.
That’s because of the long-term pattern of much higher levels of investment in infrastructure.
The old western Europe, minus Britain and Ireland, will come out of this much stronger. Britain leapfrogged Germany and France in terms of GDP during the boom, but this was based on the froth of the economy – speculation, house prices and too much hedge fund crap, while France and Germany were getting on with seriously building and investing.
Where do you stand on the burqa ban?
France has got this wrong. It’s a load of cheap politicians pandering to bigotry to get the vote in.
By insisting on some sort of ethnic assimilation, you just heighten the tension and the divisions. Just be relaxed about it.
The George Soros Institute in New York paid for an opinion poll and spoke to immigrants all over western Europe.
There was a sample in Waltham Forest [in the north-east of London], where something like 75% of first-wave Muslim immigrants said they felt British, and 90% of their children did. The figure in Paris was 25%.
The vast majority of Muslims who come to live in France, or Britain, or anywhere else in Europe, come to live a European lifestyle, to be a part of a democracy. We don’t say in Britain: “You’ve got to adapt to our culture.”
We’ve got orthodox Jews in London marrying within a small sub-set of people. There are no laws about distinctive Jewish dress. How can you have a law against the burqa, but not a law against how orthodox Jews dress?
If people are worried that the burqa is unfair to women, why aren’t these people campaigning for female Roman Catholic priests or a female Pope?
When does your campaign to get back into power in 2012 get fully under way?
It began on the Tuesday after my defeat. I and my key staff sat down and analysed the votes and thought, let’s go for it again.
Away from politics, I see you have some experience as a food critic
I did a food column in the London Evening Standard for four or five years, but it would be unfair to claim I’m a food critic; I just know what I enjoy. Rosie Boycott gave me my first job as a food writer for Esquire in 1995. We worked on the basis that our readers were young men in the South-East with more money than they knew what to do with. They just wanted a good meal, not to know what was in the sauce.
Do you enjoy French wine?
I got into French white wines in the late 1970s and early 1980s; the point where you gave up beer because it was too fattening and started drinking wine. The problem is that very often, if I have a really lovely dry white wine, I just can’t go to sleep; it just leaves me hyper-alert. Over the past seven or eight years, I’ve decided that Rioja is the wine that agrees with me the most.
A TALE OF TWO CITIES
RIVALRY between Paris and London dates to the old enmity between the British and French crowns and continues, for example in the tussle over the 2012 Olympics. However, there are plenty of friendlier links, from 2007’s Tour de France to a host of historical and cultural ones.
French Protestants fled to London in the 17th century. The French Revolution then saw about 25,000 royalist emigrés seek asylum, future King Charles X among them. The last king, Louis Philippe, ended up in London, in a house provided by Queen Victoria.
During the Second World War, Charles de Gaulle commanded the Free French from London and broadcast on the BBC.
In the 2000s, London has been popular with young French people seeking City jobs. There are thought to be about 300,000 French in London, out of no more than 400,000 in the UK.
South Kensington is home to the French consulate, the Insititut Français cultural centre and the Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle (London has several French schools for younger children, with a new one opening in Kentish Town next year). The embassy is not far away, in Knightsbridge, while the British one in Paris is on Faubourg du Saint-Honoré, on which the Elysée Palace is also located. It was bought by the Duke of Wellingon in 1814.
London-born theatre director Peter Brook was based at the Bouffes du Nord theatre in Paris for more than 30 years (but is now handing over to French successors), and Londoner John Galliano was the first Briton to be head designer at a French haute couture house: Givenchy, and then Dior.
Top London architect Richard Rogers was co-designer of the landmark Pompidou Centre. Paris architect Jean Nouvel is working on One New Change, a giant new office and leisure complex near St Paul’s.
The Channel Tunnel, opened in 1994, and subsequent fast-rail link puts Paris two-and-a-quarter hours from London.
Whatever happened to congestion charge plans?
SO FAR, no French towns have introduced a congestion charge scheme like London’s, despite new powers to do so.
According to Transport for London, the charge has reduced traffic levels by 21 per cent and allowed for greater investment into public transport.
In France, mairies are now allowed by law to trial something similar, but so far none have taken it up.
“Collectively the mayors want it because it could cut air and noise pollution and congestion, but individually it is more complicated; it would be hard to convince their residents and the car lobbies,” said a spokesman for the Association des Maires des Grandes Villes de France.
Paris has dropped the idea. A spokesman for consultation group CESR, which proposed a congestion charge plan for the capital last year, said: “It has been shelved because it is thought it would not bring in that much money and it would be discriminatory because it would be expensive for the people who are in the most difficulty. They often live far out from the centre and so come into Paris by car.”
The mairie of Toulouse has also recently ruled out the idea, as well as an alternative suggestion of banning the most polluting cars from the city centre.
Instead, the town plans to make it easier to park, including testing a Smartphone application for finding free places on the streets. The council says people driving around looking for places is one of the biggest contributors to pollution there.
The idea of so-called péages urbains has had a chequered history in France in the past few years since it was proposed at a national green summit called the Grenelle Environnement.
It was put into a draft law presented to parliament last year, but, while it was supported by senators, MPs scrapped it on the basis it would create “social inequalities” and would encourage urban sprawl by keeping people out of city centres.
It was then reintroduced as part of compromise to pass the law.
Cities of more than 300,000 inhabitants are now allowed to carry out a three-year experiment with congestion charging, which the new law says should be linked with improved public transport.
In theory, prefects have the right under French law, when pollution is especially bad, to introduce emergency measures like “alternating traffic”. This means cars with number plates ending in odd numbers can enter city centres one day and then even ones the next.
However, this is rarely done: a spokesman for the prefecture de Paris said it had been several years since it was last used there.