When Paris kicks off the Olympic Games on July 26, it will be with athletes floating on an armada of boats down the Seine River, rather than marching in a stadium as it has always been. That will be the first of many breaks with Olympic tradition. Keenly aware that previous Games left cities like Rio de Janeiro and Athens deep in debt from white-elephant stadiums and arenas, Paris officials instead are turning adored monuments into competition sites, with equestrian events in the chateau of Versailles, beach volleyball under the Eiffel Tower—and most notable, diving and swimming in a newly cleaned-up Seine River, from which bathing has been banned for a century because of pollution. Seven years after Paris won the Olympics bid, it’s ready to welcome about 15 million spectators.

A key figure behind the vision is Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who, in 2015, drove Paris’ fourth attempt to host the Olympics, clinching the deal on the promise of a sustainable, eco-friendly Games. The Spanish-born Hidalgo, 64 and a decade into her tenure, was determined to use the Olympics to push her environmental agenda, policies that have won plaudits around the world. Despite that, Hidalgo has faced biting criticism among many Parisians, who detect arrogance, and an inability to grasp workaday struggles. Taxi drivers fume at her decision to favor bicycles over cars, while others see Paris as increasingly a haven for the global rich. Hidalgo’s presidential run in 2022, as the left-wing Socialist Party candidate, won a minuscule 1.75% of votes, and last month, about 68% of Parisians said they were dissatisfied with her performance; she regularly polls near the bottom on politicians’ popularity ranks. “I don’t care,” she tells TIME.

To her critics, she points to the fact that she has accomplished what three predecessors—all men—failed to do: she has brought the Olympics to Paris. “A woman was needed,” she says, literally cocking a thumb at her nose. “The feminist that I am is very happy with this.” Sitting in her vast City Hall office on a sunny April afternoon, Hidalgo mused on how the Games can transform her internationally beloved city—as well as her own career.

Will the Olympics be your legacy as mayor?

It has allowed me to accelerate the city’s transformation, to respond to environmental challenges. We have new tram lines, thanks to the Games, and all the trees and flower beds that go with that. The cycle paths have accelerated. We have 1,400 km [870 miles] of cycle lanes today.

And then there is the Seine [River], a swimmable, clean Seine. If there had not been the Games, we would not have that. When we began preparing the bid, we met with the president of the International Triathlon Federation, who said, “My dream would be a triathlon event at the foot of the Eiffel Tower.” I said to Tony Estanguet [head of the Paris 2024 committee], “My dream would be to swim in the Seine.” So we converged.

You had strong doubts about bidding for the Olympics. What convinced you?

I saw what it felt like when you lost. I told myself it was not worth putting the whole city in motion, under stress, if we bid on the Games and lost again. Then the athletes came to me, they told me, “We have ideas, we have studied how London [which beat Paris to host the 2012 Olympics] knew how to win.”

That was just weeks after the Charlie Hebdo attacks [during which terrorists killed 17 people in Paris].

Yes. The Charlie Hebdo attacks really convinced me we needed to do something very powerful, very strong, very engaging for young people. I saw the disarray, the fear, the anxiety. I said to myself, “How can we turn this around? Something must be done. We must seize this opportunity that the Olympics and Paralympic Games are, to do what we have to do.”

You never asked Parisians whether they wanted the Olympics. Why didn’t you hold a referendum?

If we had a referendum, I think the answer would have been negative. If you tell the population, “We are going to host the Olympic Games, are you for it or are you against it?” a lot of people will say, “What’s the point of putting money into this?” To ask a question in a referendum, the answer is yes or no. You can’t get into a complex, subtle conversation. Once the Games are over, it’s a different story. It will give them something: swimming pools in the Seine and the surrounding areas, a stadium for us.

How else do the Olympics reflect your politics?

Another choice we made was to have compact Games. The sites are very close to each other, in a very restricted area. So it allows easier travel by bike or on foot. The ideal means of transportation for the Games will be on bicycle, and it will cost less too.

One great concern is security, especially with the decision to have the opening ceremony along the Seine, rather than in a stadium.

There is no plan B or C being studied. There are many threats in the world today, and Paris is a city which has already experienced attacks. Like [in] all open democratic cities, security is a very serious question. We always consider the fact that those who want to harm us spread fear. They should not prevent us from wanting to live. You can choose to be paralyzed by fear. But you can also choose to say, “Well, since we are threatened, security will be in place.” The Games are the first global event of brotherhood, after all, in a world where there are lots of wars.

Many feel that Paris is becoming a city just for tourists and rich people, and that no one can afford to buy an apartment here anymore.

The real estate market is indeed very difficult for the middle class, and modest people. It is my responsibility, as mayor. I have created social housing [publicly subsidized apartments] for middle classes and working classes. Today you have about 700,000 people who live in Paris because they are in social housing. Otherwise they would have left. My model is Vienna, which has 80% social housing. We are at 25% now, and that’s a lot for a city like Paris. The target is to have 40% by 2035. One phenomenon that is very powerful is Airbnb, seasonal rentals. When platforms like Airbnb came along and [people] started buying homes in the center of Paris, I saw 26,000 housing units marketed on seasonal platforms. It’s a daily struggle to ensure that this is not a city of the very, very rich.

So why do you rank so low on popularity polls?

A woman on the left appeals less to a man in the media, or social media networks, and there are many of them, that are oriented toward real conservatism. There is an ideological enterprise at work, trying to project an image of a France that never existed. So obviously, I am a target, as a woman of the left, a social democrat, coming from immigration. That bothers a lot of people. Pursuing concrete policies is the best way to fight populism: showing there are solutions to the climate crisis, that we can integrate foreigners, we can share and live together.

Do you think the Olympics will help you do that?

Yes, for me to succeed in the Olympic Games is to succeed in the world, to show by proof of force the humanistic encounter that the Olympic Games is not only worth organizing, but it is also worth living.

You very publicly quit X [formerly Twitter] last November. Why?

I had a very large Twitter account, with more than 1.5 million followers. In any game, there are rules. We respect our opponents, one person wins, one person loses, but in the end we shake hands. It really had become a sewer, a place of hatred. I decided on my own, and left.

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