Why you should care

Manuel Valls is tough on security and immigration, and while the president of France’s poll numbers plummet, Valls has become the country’s most popular politician.

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Manuel Valls is not your typical Socialist. He once recommended the word “Socialist” be dropped from his party’s name and criticized the country’s 35-hour work week. As France’s interior minister he is in charge of immigration, security and the police and he is very tough on crime, something that for years has been the Socialist party’s Achilles heel. Many among the left consider him a right-winger in disguise.

“Security is neither left nor right,” he once said.

Left or right – the public loves him. While President Francois Hollande’s approval ratings have been hovering at around 24 percent, Valls’s reputation has soared since coming into government, with a recent approval rating of 71 percent.

He once recommended the word “Socialist” be dropped from his party’s name and criticized the country’s 35-hour work week.

It’s not a surprise that a hard line minister is doing well in France, says David Bell, Emeritus professor of French goverment and politics at the University of Leeds. “The situation in Europe is particularly poisonous at the moment with the recession, and far right parties are polling well across Europe, particularly in France,” he explains. A recent poll underscored his point, putting Front National leader Marine Le Pen at an approval rating of 32 percent, higher than President Hollande but not nearly as high as Valls.

Group photo of people around a desk with papers. All in business attire.

10 Nov 1993, Paris, France — French First Secretary of the Socialist Party Michel Rocard surrounded by his collaborators.

As Socialist stalwart Hollande’s fortunes decline, is Valls’ injection of conservative values into the party enough to hold off the growing appeal of the hard right among the French public? Moreover, with the growing reality of the rise of the far right in Europe, could Valls’ stance as a conservative Socialist be a way for struggling leftist governments to cling to power? As Valls cautioned in an interview with the Financial Times, “The threat is not just in France. I fear there is a risk that the extreme right and populists will gain real weight in the European Parliament.”

Valls, although patriotic and loyal, has hinted at his disappointment with how the left has lead the country.

Valls’ rise to becoming France’s most popular politician was a swift one. While considered popular as mayor of Evry, a city in the suburbs of Paris that had many problems with law and order until Valls came around, he wasn’t necessarily well-liked on a national scale. In fact, when he ran in the Socialists’ presidential primary in 2011 he got less than 6% of the vote. His arguments that France’s left needed modernizing and that politicians should be economically realistic were not to everyone’s liking.

After losing, he worked as Hollande’s communications director during the campaign and became France’s interior minister when the Socialists won in 2012. The party is facing difficulty due to France’s continued economic downturn, with recent unemployment rates at about 11 percent, and Valls, although patriotic and loyal, has hinted at his disappointment with how the left has lead the country.

“The problem with the left is that once it is in power, it starts theorizing over what it should do,” Valls said, as quoted in De Spiegel. “I wish it had done that beforehand.”

Anne on left in red dress walking towards left of frame with Manuel in suit and tie, both looking towards camera.

French Interior Minister Manuel Valls (R) and his wife Anne Gravoin

Source Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty

The dark-haired, handsome 51-year-old was born in Barcelona, Spain to a Catalan artist and became a naturalized French citizen at age 20. He is quick to talk about his patriotism to France, although he doesn’t shy away from his foreign-born heritage, and is proudly fluent in Spanish, Catalan and Italian in addition to French. He is not big on smiling, kissing babies and glad-handing, and is more comfortable talking to firemen and policemen than interacting with people on the streets, although he does make an effort to so, as in his visits-by-metro to Marseille’s high-crime districts after a string of murders. He has four children, has been divorced, and remarried violinist Anne Gravoin in 2010.

Will he follow in Sarkozy’s footsteps and become president? His name has been whispered as a possible prime minister candidate…

Although he’s not single, that didn’t stop France’s Elle magazine readers from voting him as the number one minister they’d like to sleep with. (Was that more, or less exciting than being called the made up title of “the vice-president” in Nouvel Observateur magazine, Vall-y boy?)

Valls has had his fair share of controversy. His tough stance on Roma gypsies has ignited heated debates amongst human rights organizations and even people in his party who are against the deportation of the Roma and dismantling of illegal Roma camps. He refused to apologize for saying the Roma have difficulty integrating into French society and said:

“The majority [of Roma] should be delivered back to the borders. We are not here to welcome these people […] I’d remind you of [former Socialist premier] Michel Rocard’s statement: ‘It’s not France’s job to deal with the misery of the whole world.’”

His tough stance on Roma gypsies has ignited heated debates amongst human rights organizations.

Director of the Foundation for Political Innovation Dominique Reynie told Le Monde, ”Twenty years ago, Valls’s remarks on the Roma would have come from [Front National founder] Jean-Marie Le Pen. In 2010, President Sarkozy’s remarks were shocking. In 2013, worse language emanates from the Socialist Interior Minister. Almost 80 per cent of French voters agree with him. President Hollande shows his de facto support. It is a testimony to the rightward slide of the landscape. All of France is hardening.”

Manuel on right facing a police officer on left shaking his hand.

French Interior Minister Manuel Valls shakes hands with a policeman outside Paris on September 6, 2013.

Source AFP/Getty

Valls also stirred the pot when a video of him as mayor filmed him walking through a local flea market commenting, “Now this is a nice picture of Évry. Come on, give me a few whites, a few blancos, a few blancs.” Again, he didn’t apologize and explained that in context he was just expressing his opposition to ghettoization and said ethnicities should be mixed across all neighborhoods.

Valls’ strict law and order practices, including putting more police on the streets, his foreign birth and the fact that he didn’t attend elite French schools has people drawing comparisons to Nicolas Sarkozy. He shrugs off the comparison. “If you mean that he was energetic, and shook up old habits, and grabbed hold of security dossiers, then I’m not bothered,” he once said in response.

Will he follow in Sarkozy’s footsteps and become president? That remains unclear. His name has been whispered as a possible prime minister candidate, but Bell thinks it is unlikely. The prime minister executes the president’s plan and if Hollande makes Valls prime minister, it would be exposing his own “extreme weakness” and giving power to a person that Hollande would have difficulty controlling.

A presidential run could be in the cards, although if Hollande runs in the next elections it would kick the can further down the road for Valls. Additionally, Bell points out the Socialist party is going to enter into a period of considerable turbulence as they work out differences in opinions. ”There’s going to be another struggle for domination and that is not Valls’ to simply take,” says Bell. “He’s in a good position but he’ll have to do it much more effectively than anyone’s done so far.” He adds that Valls “doesn’t capture people’s hearts” within the Socialist party, which could give him trouble with future nominations.

There is much left to be determined with France’s political future and thus, Valls’ as well. There’s a long road ahead for him, but if it is up to Valls it will be a road lined with policeman without an undocumented Roma in sight.

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