Our September 2013 profile of Manuel Valls
WHAT did you do on your holidays? Well, try and keep up with the schedule of the Interior Minister Manuel Valls. This summer he made several visits to the beach to talk about swimming safety; he announced to Chinese and other tourists that, despite a wave of thefts, Paris is safe to visit; he visited the scene of riots in Trappes; he wandered around Cannes after France’s largest armed-robbery; he branded a bull in the Camargue; he discussed turning the whole of Marseille into a special security zone; he dissolved two far-right groups; got into an etymological argument over the origin of Islamophobie; celebrated the end of Ramadan with muslims and went to an art exhibition where he finally appeared in the young-politician-on-holiday dress code of jeans and an open-neck white shirt.
Throughout the summer, Valls’s stern appearance has graced screens and paper, his jet-black hair and dark suits and ties making him appear like a shadow cast by France’s bright summer sun.
The effects of his mediatised summer are unclear. His general popularity has dropped, with only 46% of people agreeing he has a good public image. A second, more fantastical poll found that he would beat Sarkozy in the run-off of the second round of a presidential election (49% to 44%). The poll result is nonsense, but to get people asking the question is no small victory.
Like Sarkozy, Valls
plays the tough man
Sarkozy comparisons are double-edged (one, perhaps slightly jealous, colleague declared him a “Sarkozy de Leader Price”), but eagerly sought by Valls. The Camargue bull-branding exercise was one of his more obvious efforts.
Sarkozy took a similar opportunity in the region while Minister of the Interior to mount a white horse for the cameras. Valls may have thought this too cavalier, but the TV obligingly dredged up the Sarkozy footage for comparison anyway.
Like Sarkozy, Valls plays the tough man. Also like Sarkozy, he appeals over the heads of party politics, such as describing security as “not of the right, nor of the left [but] a value of the Republic”. He talks of a crisis of authority and his role being to restore it.
“The voice of parents, the teacher, the judge, the police officer, the politician, is too often questioned,” he said, although a few weeks later he found himself doing exactly the same with the magistrates who released two convicted criminals because the prisons were full, putting him in conflict with the Justice Minister Christiane Taubira.
The director of the poll group Ipsos, Jean-Marc Lech, told Le Point magazine: “Manuel Valls understands that posture and allure are the structures of popularity. He gives the total appearance of seriousness. He is never light.”
His mixture of working hard for his department, his country and himself is also familiar.
Like Sarkozy, he makes no
Attempt to hide his ambition
“He gets good value. It’s order and security in the morning, politics in the evening. Sarkozy did the same: state funds to serve personal ambition,” said a minister to L’Express.
Like Sarkozy, he makes no attempt to hide his ambition, sensibly limited to Prime Minister for the moment.
“Valls repeats to anyone who wants to listen that he will be in Matignon in one year,” a high-ranking Socialist let slip in the Nouvel Observateur in late 2012.
“I do politics, I am ambitious,” he admits. “If tomorrow they gave me new responsibilities, I would take them obviously.”
His naked ambition led to a rap on the knuckles from François Hollande, who told the press: “It is always the President of the Republic who decides.”
(For those who believe in background machinations, Valls admits he was a freemason and has attended meetings of the Bilderberg group).
Hollande’s riposte did little to damage Valls. “I am protected by my popularity and by my role as Minister of the Interior,” he told the Journal du Dimanche.
So what does Valls believe in beyond his own ability? He reportedly describes himself as centre-left, a Blairist or Clintonian, something his critics prefer to call “an absence of politics” (Jean-Christophe Lagarde) and “the last illusion of socialism” (Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet).
The Washington Post has already compared him to Blair.
He joined the Socialist Party in 1981, but sided with the anti-Mitterrand camp. (In fact, he was still Spanish when he joined and couldn’t vote in the presidential elections of that year. He became a French citizen in 1982, but still supports FC Barcelona. He is also quadrilingual, speaking French, Catalan, Spanish and Italian.)
His first major national post was as head of communications for PM Lionel Jospin from 1997-2002. Despite his centre position, his party affiliations were strong enough for him to turn down a request to join the Sarkozy government in 2007 during the latter’s “ouverture”.
However, his first attempt to steer the political agenda of the party was a disaster. He said the Socialists need to get away from their ideas and positions of the 70s, 80s and 90s.
The public, largely, like him;
the party remains unconvinced
His manifesto of reducing France’s deficit to 3% of GDP from 2013, raising taxes, scrapping the 35-hour working week, re-evaluating public salaries, a VAT scheme aimed at wealth redistribution and a bill to help small businesses won him just 5% in the Socialist Party leadership primaries in October 2011. Most of it is now government policy.
As Minister of the Interior, he likes to talk tough – he was quick to slap down any talk among his party of liberalising laws on cannabis – but he is easily outflanked. Responding to an outbreak of robberies targeting Asian tourists, the government produced a leaflet warning them about pick-pockets. It was communications over action, leaving the door open to the Front National to ask why they weren’t using these resources to target the offenders instead.
Valls is not playing the Front National game, even though his position, which covers immigration and religious issues as well as law and order, is their key target. While last year he quickly moved to harmonise the laws on the legalisation of some illegal migrants, he has kept the issue out of the spotlight, separating Romas and travellers, Islam and immigration. Reforms are planned but not until next year.
The public largely like him, but his party, for the moment, remains unconvinced. His current position stems from his time as the director of communications for François Hollande’s presidential campaign. (A role he was offered after he threw his support behind him at the primaries). But his position on tenets such as the 35-hour week had the previous leader of the Socialists, Martine Aubry, demanding that he quit the party.
His performance at last year’s Socialist Party conference, clenched fists and tough talk, won him new support and his speech this year will be watched keenly.
The first time he stuck his head above the parapet he was shot down by his own party and their lack of support in the primaries. This summer, the flak has been coming from the right. The head of the UMP, Jean-François Copé, has signalled Valls as being the chief target of the party. Certainly if Valls had a busy summer, then running behind him was Christian Estrosi, who spent his five years under Sarkozy attempting to get the job of Interior Minister and now finds himself in opposition, shadowing Valls.
Both of them have fought over the issue of travellers in France, coming to blows while essentially making exactly the same arguments – that France should be better at executing the laws it has already passed on the subject.
But coming to blows with the right makes Valls a stronger figurehead for the left. Something that has proved more difficult to achieve than getting the public on side.
Valls’s career has been based on communications skills that he’s put to good effect, not just for himself this summer, but by the very fact that François Hollande is now president.
The question is whether he can take his political agenda and communications skills and become a leader rather than a shadow.
Manuel Valls biography -
1962 Born in Barcelona
1981 Joins Socialist Party
1982 Becomes naturalised French citizen
1987 Marries Nathalie Soulié who he met while studying at the Sorbonne. They have four children but later divorce
1997-02 Head of communications for PM Lionel Jospin
2001 Elected Mayor of Evry (re-elected in 2007)
2005 Initially joins ‘No’ campaign for EU treaty, but after Socialists referendum votes ‘Yes’ result he campaigns for ‘Yes’ ‘out of discipline’
2008 Supports Ségolène Royal during the fallout of the leadership battle
2011 Stands as leadership candidate in Socialist primaries getting 6%, coming behind Royal
2011 Head of communications for François Hollande’s presidential campaign
2012 Named Minister of the Interior
2014 Named Prime Minister