Halfway into his first six year term, the dynamic mayor of Cannes has proven a highly competent and thoroughly modern leader with more than impressive results
French mayors don’t have an easy job. Their principal task is to lead their communities’ prosperous development, to be present and approachable for their citizens beyond party affiliation, and to have their ear on the ground for local current problems and future trends. At the same time, they are expected to play an important role in the political life beyond their town where partisanship all of a sudden does come into view. That requires a daily balancing act. Few French mayors are as adept at this tightrope walk as David Lisnard, the mayor of Cannes. Even fewer can show results as impressive as his, only midway into his first term. And hardly any of his peers remain as approachable and affable as him.
The first thing that strikes you about this slight, wiry man with the deep laugh lines on his face is just how much his physical and mental agility are in sync. He is a former football player and still runs marathons in under three hours, and this is in many ways representative for who he is and how he goes about his political business. He intrinsically understands the value and importance of both strategy and tactics, of immediate action and long-term perseverance. He is a natural born leader but remains a team player. He is a visionary but does not patronize those whose horizon may not stretch as far as his own. He is an astute business manager and a beloved fraternal figure to his local citizens. He is an art lover and an avid athlete, a public personality and a family man. Film industry or space technology – he is equally knowledgeable and at ease in the presence of movie stars and astronauts, and anyone in between. Nothing is a contradiction to David Lisnard, his forte is knowing how to bridge opposites to bring out the best in both.
Cannois to the Core
But even his most cerebral accomplishments would still be missing the key ingredient if he did not have this immense passion for the wellbeing of Cannes. David Lisnard’s heart beats for the beautiful small town and its citizens as if each and every one of them were part of this solidly down-to-earth family, deeply rooted in local soil since the 15th century. Originally the Lisnards were fishermen, then merchants and builders. His great-grandfather Léon founded the iconic Marché de Forville, his grandfather Raymond owned the two star hotel Le Soleil right behind it. And finally, his parents, a professional footballer and a ballet dancer, added a healthy dose of athleticism and appreciation of culture to the gene pool.
David – as his local citizens simply call him, emphasizing the fact that he is one of them – is young, dynamic, photogenic, a great public speaker, easy-going, and immensely likeable. But that was not why he was elected mayor in 2014. He had already proven his considerable management skills in previous public roles, notably that of Head of Palais des Festivals et des Congrès, France’s second largest conference centre. That unto itself is not a job for the faint of heart, given the fierce national and international competition, and events in the spotlights of the entire world, such as the annual Cannes Film Festival. But he had not shied away from the Herculean task to take over an organization in pretty bad financial and administrative shape, and the result spoke for itself. Over the course of his 13 year tenure, he succeeded in cleaning it up from the inside out, erasing all debts and inspiring its staff to climb new heights.
When he decided to run for office as Cannes’s mayor, he could have simply banked on the town’s tried and true status as Europe’s answer to Hollywood, or settled for managing a pleasant small Rivieran town that generates reliable revenues from tourism, with three million visitors per year. He could have… but he didn’t. Doing things halfway is not David Lisnard’s style. He had incredibly ambitious plans, but was wise enough to package them in digestible bites.
Goal # 1 – A Clean, Friendly and Safe Town
On the forefront of David Lisnard’s agenda is a campaign that is direly needed, and that – modest as it may appear – is truly a recipe for success in the bigger picture: Cleanliness and civility have become key themes of his mandate. “Civility means civilization. The fight against incivility means creating a society built on shared responsibility,” is his credo. This means increased and more visible police presence on the streets… not there to play strongmen but to ensure quality of life and prevent misdeeds from happening. He himself is out and about in the streets of Cannes around 6 am every single morning to inspect the safety and state of public spaces, construction sites, and hot spots. This is a hands-on mayor who meets street sweepers as naturally as he rubs shoulders with movie stars. And littering has become expensive. Gone are the days where citizens could get away with flicking their cigarette butt on the pavement or letting Fido deposit piles on the public sidewalk… a watchful eye is not far away. Of course, this creates controversy. The French famously lean toward civil disobedience and some feel that Cannes has become somewhat totalitarian in its surveillance… but even more people are firmly on the side of the law that simply states, “do your personal part to keep your city clean and hygienic” (and many an envious Niçois wishes for the same measures to be implemented in their dog-poop covered city…) For David Lisnard, respect for oneself and others is the foundation of a healthy community. And it starts showing. There is a noticeable uptick in cleanliness, friendliness, and positive interactions.
Goal # 2 – Growing Economy, Qualified Jobs
What David Lisnard considers essential in one’s personal life – discipline and respect – he also applies to the city’s finances. A rigorous fiscal programme has slashed the city’s debts by €45 million to €210 million in just three years, with a continued downward trend. At the same time, there were no local tax increases, and an annual average of €47 million has been spent on local infrastructure.
Cannes’ western appendix Cannes la Bocca is a focus area in these infrastructure improvement programmes. The goal is to attract investors by expanding existing key industries with new and innovative offerings. That means of course primarily the film business – Cannes and movies have rhymed for 70 years – which continues to provide the basis for future profitable ventures. In a thematic extension of the film festival, 2017 saw the inauguration of the International Storytelling Institute, created in partnership with UCLA, Université de Nice Côte d’Azur, and Vivendi/Canal+, and geared to young film writers, providing them with an opportunity to study with experienced industry pros. Along the same vein, the newly founded international CanneSeries festival aims to highlight TV series from all over the world and to give an international voice to this increasingly popular and fiercely creative new art form. At the same time, regional film and TV shoots and production are strongly encouraged, and receive financial support. La Bocca is also home to CréaCannes, a budding hub for creative startups located in the historic Bastide Rouge building. All these initiatives are major milestones in Cannes’ strategic plan to develop a technology park for video technology and the creative economy in the city’s western quarter.
Another pillar of Cannes’ economy, and one that David Lisnard also supports vigorously, is technology, and specifically the space science industry. Local flagship company Thales Alenia – a key player in the 2016 ExoMars expedition under the motto “Cannes Goes to Mars” employs over 8,000 people, many of them highly qualified international engineers and developers of hi-tech solutions for telecommunications and space exploration. And the fact that French astronaut Thomas Pesquet was among the company’s most prominent staff members for a while, still fills David Lisnard with pride and joy. “Cannes is a village, as we like to say here, a global village, an intergalactic village. And now it is also an interplanetary village… Cannes is a city of stars in more than just one sense…not just the ones on screen, but also the ones in space. It is, in fact, already the second most important city of space technology in France, and I am committed to making it a global space science leader,” the innovation-friendly mayor promises. And with companies like Thales Alenia, as well as Europe’s largest tech and business park Sophia Antipolis just around the corner, it is a feasible goal. In fact, in 2015 Cannes obtained the coveted French Tech label, which allows local start-ups access to specific grants and funding in order to be more competitive on an international level.
Goal # 3 – A More Attractive City for its Residents
La Croisette, Red Carpet events, beach glam and high-end boutiques – entertainment for the Rich and Famous is not in short supply, and well-heeled tourists certainly find their fill of thrill. But there are also 90,000 locals who live and work here, going about their lives as best they can. Not everyone has a helipad on his roof and three Maseratis in the garage. Cannes may have been “born of a kiss from the sea to the sun”, as poet Frédéric Mistral once said, but for the local population, it was not the most attractive of towns until Mayor Lisnard came in and started creating exciting options for them as well.
Since then, Cannes is hardly recognizable. Every nook and cranny of the town is getting a makeover, is embellished, secured, and turned into a micro cosmos of a livable, neighbourly town within town, offering increased job opportunities and interesting activities for all generations. The surface of Cannois beaches accessible to the public is just about to be doubled. The formerly ignored La Bocca appendix of the town is being reinvented as BoccaCabana, teeming with family-friendly activities. New neighbourhood cultural spaces give the town a fresh flavour. And newly institutionalized annual events and festivals for the locals now give the year a distinct rhythm. Two of David Lisnard’s many ambitious projects have become instant hits:
Le Suquet des Art(iste)s
Transforming a former morgue that had been abandoned since 1955 into an art space takes guts and imagination. Thankfully, David Lisnard had both, and boldly initiated the creation of one of the most attractive new exhibition venues in town. Nestled at the foot of the historic Old Town (Le Suquet) and inaugurated in 2015, this 800 m2 space houses both resident and visiting artists. The most prominent one to date: up-and-coming international star photographer Boris Wilensky, whose work is sought after from Paris to Dubai and anywhere in between.
Both a gourmet and gourmand of the arts, David Lisnard is happy with the outcome. “Even before my election [to mayor], I had decided to include in my campaign programme the transformation of this space which once was dedicated to death into one that is dedicated to creation and to life, so that the old historic heart of Cannes would become a neighbourhood of cultural expression. This vision has taken concrete shape: we have revived the artistic spirit of the Suquet quarter and highlighted its attractiveness while keeping its identity and improving the lives of its residents.”
Jogging and long-distance running is something this mayor can’t live without. And so it was the most natural thing in the world to him to share his passion for sports with his fellow Cannois. A newly created, all-terrain 26 kilometre trail comprises a Best Of overview of scenic urban and rural sights, from the Croisette, up and down the famous steps of the Palais des Festival et des Congrès, along the alleys of the historic Old Town, on to the picturesque Canal de la Siagne and finally the majestic Parc de la Croix des Gardes. For beginners and mid-distance runners, two shorter parcours of 13 km and 8 km have been developed. And in true Cannes fashion, the trail was inaugurated with a festival in January 2018, with hundreds of runners attacking the course.
But while the Urban Trail is a newly prominent athletic highlight in Cannes, it is by no means the only one: Davis Lisnard is firmly committed to interest as many of his fellow citizens as possible in sports, and does whatever it takes to offer attractive neighbourhood programmes. This policy just earned the town another prestigious national label, “Ville active et sportive”.
Candidate for UNESCO World Heritage site
Another key theme of David Lisnard’s mayoral mandate is the candidature of the Lérins Islands, just a couple of kilometres offshore from Cannes, to be included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites in order to better protect and valorise their unique natural and cultural treasures.
With their history going back 2,300 years, Île Sainte-Marguerite and Île Saint-Honorat have been populated since Antiquity. Their biodiverse and emblematic Mediterranean landscapes are made of coastal forests, rocky creeks and beaches, and they hold the cultural relics and fabulous stories, real or legendary, of many different populations. Today, these islets serve as the bridge from the past to the 21st century. The medieval former royal fort on St. Marguerite island now houses an archaeology museum which features topical events and exhibitions such as Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s high-profile “Heritage Seen from the Sky” expo in 2017.
It’s Only Been Three Years!
If all of this reads like most men’s lifetime accomplishments, remember that David Lisnard has only been in office for a little over three years, and that this also barely scratches the surface of his actual impact. Add to this the fact that hardly one year into his term, he also had to deal with one of the biggest natural disasters in French history. On October 3, 2015 a deluge of historic proportions ravaged Cannes and its outlying communities, killing 20 people and causing material damage to the tune of €300 million. The mayor proved his qualities as an outstanding crisis manager: within minutes, he organized, implemented, and managed an emergency plan which prevented even greater loss to life and assets. Following his appeal, thousands of local, regional, national and even international volunteers mobilized to assist with the immediate and longer-term aftermath of the catastrophe. But terrible as these events were, David Lisnard still managed to see the upside: “We managed to draw a positive energy from this terrible tragedy which has allowed us to help, repair, and anticipate. It is in situations like this one, which has marked me for life, that you understand the necessity and the greatness of public service.” His leadership inspired residents who were spared from this disaster to rally in solidarity for the victims, providing shelter, collecting funds, and helping through a number of high-profile charity events.
This mayor is full of energy and ideas for his town, and at the same time still manages to find the time for personal encounters with his residents, for public service on national level, and of course for his own family. His daily greetings on social media, often posted at the crack of dawn as he is already out and about, and accompanied by his own photos, have thousands of followers. He is immensely popular because people feel his authenticity and his genuine devotion to his office. Many are those in Cannes and elsewhere who hope and even demand that David Lisnard run for future presidency. But he dismisses such claims. Cannes is his first love. He is a manager, a leader, a doer, a listener, and a creator, and he knows he can make the biggest immediate impact in his current role.
He is also uniquely progressive and forward-thinking… if you ask him for a book recommendation, you will likely end up with something like “La Guerre des Intelligences” (Dr. Laurent Alexandre) because this visionary is lightyears ahead of the game and sees issues where others don’t even see a situation. Sometimes his thinking and will to action are way ahead of his times, and he gets mildly frustrated with the existing antiquated and notoriously complex structures of French state employee service. But he is a realist and knows that everything is only a matter of time. In the meantime he keeps channelling his drive into giving Cannes a brand new image as a modern, dynamic, and attractive town with a fascinating offer for visitors and a great future for its inhabitants. In this, David Lisnard is a real stroke of luck for Cannes, a uniquely effective and well-liked mayor that other French cities are genuinely envious of.
— David Lisnard, citing Romain Gary
All images courtesy Ville de Cannes / Mairie de Cannes; photo of island © Mairie de Cannes Axis Drone